Monday, 22 July 2013

A heatwave - and the urban nature it lets cyclists sniff out

A few nights in the last few weeks, I’ve been working late and, realising I needed groceries but would miss the closing time of stores near my apartment, I’ve opted to make a treat out of a chore. I’ve headed five blocks north from my office and ridden into Central Park, heading for the Fairway Market on Broadway. I’ve swept downhill from Central Park South, leaving behind the oppressive heat thrown off by New York’s buildings and streets in the current heatwave for the marginally cooler park, surrounded by trees yet overlooked by skyscrapers.

Central Park: a treat to ride in - for those with a taste in
heated manure
But on Thursday night, after a particularly sulphurously hot day, the experience had an unexpected, added edge. Almost as if I’d ridden into a cloud of some pollutant, I found myself inhaling as thick a concentration of horse manure smells as I’ve ever experienced. The tourist carriages that I often follow in the morning from their stables on the lower west side had clearly been busy that day, I realised. That had left a generous coating of manure baking on the asphalt in 100F heat, with predictably stinky results.

The experience brought home to me how vital a part smell plays in the full-frontal assault of riding a bike in any large city during a heatwave. In New York, however, it currently plays a particularly special role. The city has been better in its gentrification push over the last 20 years at improving how it looks than how it smells. Many of the odours consequently represent the forces that even so controlling an administration as Michael Bloomberg’s still hasn't managed to rein in. They tell a story about the city that’s wafted only into the nostrils of the still fairly select bunch of people prepared to ride a bike in New York on a day when the thermometer is showing over 90F and one’s glasses steam up instantly one steps outdoors.
 
The East River: tell-tale salty smells
There are, of course, some smells that persist year-round. Sometimes when I'm riding by the East or Hudson Rivers, a boat's wash slaps into the promenade. As the spray splashes against the railings, there’s a salty smell in the air, an unmistakeable reminder that New York is a maritime city and that the rivers, as well as carrying water from upstate, are inlets of the sea. It’s the smell of the secret of New York’s success – a gateway between the interior that vessels sailing up the Hudson River serve and the wide Atlantic Ocean out beyond the harbour.

The same goes for the smell that meets me as I speed on my bike down the western side of the Manhattan Bridge. I think it’s a mixture of boiled duck, five-spice mixture and plum sauce, but there’s an unmistakeable smell to areas with a high concentration of Cantonese restaurants, like Chinatown, where the bridge emerges in Manhattan. In my mind’s eye, the smell forever has me sitting in one of the countless eating places in the heart of Hong Kong, at a Spartan formica table, with plates of steaming food being brought to me. The two places smell exactly the same.

Then there are the smells that testify to how my fellow New Yorkers’ behaviour changes as the heat rises.

Earlier in the summer, when the Hudson River Park was still closed off firmly every night at dusk, a late night ride down the neighbouring bike path was apt to prove a trial. As I passed groups of people congregated along the low stone wall by the path, the distinct, herbal smell of the marijuana they were smoking would tickle the upper reaches of the inside of my nose. By very late on a Friday night or early Saturday morning, the path was apt to become an obstacle course, as happy dope smokers milled around, their risk perceptions – seldom a strong point of path users – worsened still further by the weed.

The path is at least less cluttered now that the park is generally open late into the night. But, as I ride by the park’s helpfully-placed bushes, the strong smell bears testimony to park users’ continued desire to smoke dope while watching New Jersey’s lights becoming fuzzier and fuzzier.
 
Children play round a fire hydrant in The Bronx:
they'll be off for a barbecue later in the park
The city’s public parks smell different in daytime heat too. Taking myself once again out of the city on Saturday, I rode up (for the first time) to The Bronx, bound over the city line to Westchester County. In The Bronx, I found children playing in the water from opened fire hydrants. In Van Cortlandt Park, my nostrils and ears encountered a distinctive mixture: firelighter liquid, loud Latin music and the smell of barbecued meat, wafting from the elaborate set-ups that scores of families had lugged into the park.

But probably the most telling smells are the ones that testify to how much organic matter still lies festering, largely unnoticed, round the greatest city on earth.

It’s tempting to think of New York as forged out of concrete and steel, an entirely manmade creation. I’ve recently discovered that that’s not entirely fanciful. Midtown and lower Manhattan sprouted their skyscrapers precisely because the bedrock there is close to the surface. Many of the buildings there are plugged straight into the solid, unyielding bedrock, with no messy soil in between.

But the stench in Central Park is a reminder how the city continues to consume vast quantities of organic materials. Horses’ oats and hay end up caked on Central Park’s asphalt. The smell of rotting food from humans’ garbage, which I often smell as I cycle past the sanitation department depot in Chelsea, is far more widespread in summer. It hangs around the big piles of garbage bags piled on the sidewalk as the sun makes the discarded fruit and vegetables inside decay all the faster.
 
A New Yorker shelters from the glare of the sun:
and the smell of the sewers
Worse still is the stink emanating from some of the drains. The city might have eliminated graffiti and broken windows above ground. But there’s something far less readily controllable about the life of a drain. The whiff that wafts up from some gratings puts me in mind of a slum in Mumbai or Kolkata, where the same malodorous ingredients mingle in the open air.

Yet the smelly life that springs forth when the mercury jumps to 90 is far less surprising to a cyclist than to most people. Cyclists are close enough to see the rat dart across the cycle path, smell the garbage truck that’s blocking the road and notice year-round the surprising number of horses still at work in the city. All testify to a secret, natural life that teems under the city’s streets, in its open places and in hidden-away stables. Cities have been giving off these smells since the dawn of civilisation - the odour of people living close together satisfying their various natural needs. However much he or she might smarten up the city's look, no future mayor looks likely to eliminate them.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Cute deer, nature - and the fragility of civilisation

It’s perhaps because I normally ride nearly exclusively in cities that I initially assumed the heads I could see poking over the brow of the hill were other cyclists. But, as I got closer, it became clearer. Standing to one side of Henry Hudson Drive, in the Palisades Park in New Jersey, a couple of small deer were eyeing me warily. Taken aback at encountering such a sight barely 20 miles from my front door in Brooklyn, I stopped to watch them back. Then, after a moment, a car came the other way, the deer took fright and bounded off into the undergrowth.
 
Cute baby deer express their shock at seeing a genuine
urban cyclist out here in the New Jersey countryside

However brief, the encounter was the kind of experience that makes some people insist that cycling in the countryside is the only “real” cycling – that urban cycling, to get one from A to B, is a poor substitute. It’s a view that I resist so strongly that I’m sometimes almost reluctant to leave the city. “Go somewhere upstate? But the buildings will all be boring.”

Yet it wasn’t only the deer during my ride on Saturday – the first time I’ve ridden over New York City’s boundaries since moving here – that made my ride to the Palisades a fine advert for the rigours of cycling outside a city. It’s an opportunity to stretch oneself in ways that would be illegal or anti-social in a city. It offers a chance to wonder at sights one never sees in the city. It offers a fresh perspective on city life. But, for me, it's light relief from the serious business of using a bike to get about. I will never be one of the grim-faced riders I passed in the Palisades for whom recreational riding was clearly a serious End in Itself.

As with quite a lot of things I do, part of the reason I headed for the Palisades – an “interstate” park, since it stretches north from New Jersey into the New York State counties west of the Hudson – was negative. Many work colleagues, neighbours and so on, on learning I am a cyclist, immediately start raving about the attractions of the Palisades and how I really must go there. It was becoming frankly embarrassing to keep explaining that, no, what with working all hours and having two children whose idea of fun wasn’t riding 17 miles to reach a park with nice cycling routes, I hadn’t yet got round to riding there. I wanted to join in those conversations better.

There was also the relish for a new challenge. I’ve written before about the pleasure of finding one’s way in a new place. A ride to the Palisades would take me north of the furthest north point I’d ridden in Manhattan and across the dramatic George Washington Bridge. Hitherto, I’d only seen it straddling the Hudson in the distance.

Most powerfully of all, perhaps, I’d told people this was one of the things I’d do with a free Saturday in July, when the family were going to be away for three weeks. I was going to feel frankly foolish if by the time they returned I, er, hadn’t got round to it.
 
Midtown Manhattan does its best to imitate grease spots on a
paper bag, in this picture from the George Washington Bridge
So, despite humidity so oppressive the air outside felt no fresher than my apartment’s bathroom after my morning shower, I headed out just before noon. I lunched by the river in the Upper West Side and found my way, heaving myself up some steep and awkward slopes on the way, onto the George Washington Bridge. The bridge was a product of New York City’s building boom in the era of Robert Moses – whose legacy I only recently criticised – albeit built by another authority. It offers remarkable drama for a humdrum link in the interstate highway system, leaping between high cliffs on either side of the Hudson River, taking vehicles hundreds of feet over the water down below. Looking down the river, the heat haze spread a white, translucent curtain over midtown Manhattan. A series of grey shapes loomed out of the haze, like the outline of greasy goodies seeping through a paper bag from a patisserie. It was beginning to feel as if I’d got myself properly away from my normal surroundings.

The view, however, didn’t prepare me for one of the great pleasures of countryside cycling – that there are greater extremes involved. It was a point I’d almost forgotten before, 17 miles into my trip, I passed the park entrance and reached Henry Hudson Drive, which snakes between areas well up on the riverside cliffs and areas right down by the river’s edge. Suddenly, I was using capabilities of my bike and myself that I’d almost forgotten were there. On the downhills, I was riding for long stretches at more than 20mph, looking out for rough patches of road surface, using my largest chainring to push that bit harder. On the steepest uphills, I was occasionally onto the smallest – hardly ever used – chainring, straining to climb in air so humid it felt as if I was hauling the water in it uphill along with me.
 
A snake skin - which the Invisible Visible Man was surprised
to see didn't occur naturally only on handbags or boots
The nature was a more unexpected surprise. Having ridden five-and-three-quarter miles from the entrance, I decided to turn round at a little bridge. In contrast with the sounds of city cycling, I could hear nothing but a waterfall splashing down the cliffs behind. It was a little startling to look out across the river and see The Bronx, a part of New York City so thoroughly urban it was the birthplace of rap music. It felt still stranger when I noticed that, at one end of the bridge, a snake had recently shed its skin, leaving a long, patterned, transparent sleeve among the ivy.

The deer, encountered on the way home, only confirmed my sense of wonder. They were a reminder of how wild this part of the United States naturally is. The surprise should perhaps not be that there are deer wandering around within sight of The Bronx but that nature has been so thoroughly eradicated in the built-up parts. As recently as the early years of the 20th century, after all, Jackson Heights in Queens, where I catch the bus when I use LaGuardia Airport, was Trains Meadow, a marsh area noted for its richness in waterfowl. It’s now as densely-populated an area as any in the United States.

Yet, however magical some of my experiences in this potted little bit of countryside might have been, I didn’t feel any reluctance about returning to the city. I hauled myself back up the hill to the bridge and once again over the Hudson. I navigated the unfamiliar streets of Manhattan’s northern tip and was soon pedalling along a path beside the river I’d just passed so high overhead.
 
The Invisible Visible Man freely admits he'd happily ride
on more roads with this many cars on them
Many of the other cyclists I’d seen in the Palisades wouldn’t, I suspect, have enjoyed the urban portion of my journey. I know at least one person who declines to ride his bike in New York City except to reach the bridge and the purer cycling experiences in northern New Jersey. Many of the other cyclists I saw wore the fixed expressions of men and women locked in their own personal battles over a Strava segment.

The rigours of urban cycling bring their own rewards, however, even if they're not measurable on a competitive cycling website. As I made my way down by the Hudson, I had to stay alert, speeding up and slowing down as I made my way round other path users. I had the pleasure of seeing how other people were interacting along the path, the ways people from different cultures were using the open spaces to barbecue or talk or flirt.

There were also, as ever, the awe-inspiring monuments of New York’s built environment, constructed on a scale to match the grandness of the Hudson’s cliffs. I remember particularly spotting the Italianate spire of Riverside Church poking above the trees of Riverside Drive.

My pleasure in such sights was all the greater for the sense of how thin a veneer such signs of civilisation have laid over nature, even in the area around greater New York. It would take very little, I realised, if human beings stopped maintaining this place before deer were again leaping and snakes sunning themselves amid the ruins on this eastern side of the Hudson too.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The Gorbals, Robert Moses and the hometown blues

For years when I returned to Glasgow, the city where I lived on and off from the ages of four to 24, relatives and acquaintances would suck their teeth as I mentioned how I cycled in Edinburgh, London or Budapest, the cities where I’ve lived in the two intervening decades. Cycling would never take off in Glasgow, they explained, because of the weather. The persistent, year-round rain would make it impossible.
 
A cyclist in Glasgow: doing his best to follow my lead
from 20 years ago
It was consequently a pleasant surprise when I enjoyed a few days’ brief return home last week to discover that I’d been only 20 years or so ahead of the times when I cycled regularly in Glasgow. I saw none of the large packs of commuting cyclists that are becoming features of the London and even sometimes the New York streetscape. But there were undoubtedly far more noticeable numbers of cyclists about on the streets, competing with double-deck buses, trucks and cars for space on the roads.

Yet cyclists’ growing visibility is by no means the most important recent transport change in the city. Across the Gorbals, a notoriously rough area where I used to cycle between my parents’ home and my postgraduate journalism course, there now strides a vast motorway viaduct, opened two years ago in the name of relieving congestion on older, 1970s and 1980s motorways. The new road – an extension of the M74 motorway leading to England – was built against planners’ advice and looks set to keep the Gorbals as depressing as in the 1990s.

My clearest memory of riding in the Gorbals then is of jostling with cars while riding by a vast, wasteland lot. I knew it had, in happier times, housed elegant tenements designed by Alexander “Greek” Thomson, a 19th century architect dedicated to turning everyday Glasgow buildings into visions of classical elegance.

The new road’s presence prompted me to notice quite how much space Glasgow devotes to the private car – and how far the priority cars receive helps to sustain their dominance. I also noticed how much priority the city’s road network gave to saving motorists time – at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists. That in turn put me in mind of how much space and time both New York – to which I’ve returned this week – and London – where I’ve lived 11 of my post-Glasgow years – lavish on users of private cars.

The FDR Drive was one of the few New York highways
not built by Robert Moses. But the neighbourng housing projects
were - and illustrate precisely how much care the
"master builder" took to create warm, vibrant neighbourhoods.
All of those cities have made admirable strides in the last decade towards enticing residents back onto the bicycles that had been abandoned as urban transport tools. But the more I thought about practical conditions for cycling in those places, the more it struck me that cyclists were often working against the grain of the cities’ current structures. Their true inclinations remained shaped by people like Robert Moses, the “master builder” who in the 1950s and 1960s sent road bridges springing across New York City’s waterways, tunnels burrowing under its harbour and expressways marching across many of its urban neighbourhoods.

Not, I should add, that I envy the task of Glasgow’s transport planners. The city, once a thriving centre for shipbuilding, maritime trade and heavy industry, has suffered from nearly every economic dislocation imaginable. Trade’s focus has shifted from Britain’s Atlantic coast towards those near sea lanes to and from Asia. Shipbuilding, undercut by Asia’s low wages and high efficiency, has all but disappeared. Other countries now make the huge freight locomotives my mother recalls seeing heading down her street on their way to haul goods across South Africa or India. The city could hardly have failed to hollow out as tens of thousands of its working class citizens lost their jobs and left homes that had been clustered around their workplaces. New York and London have undergone similar changes following deindustrialisation, but haven’t quite so comprehensively lost their senses of purpose.
 
A cyclist labours up the pedestrian/bike path near the
Riverside Museum. You've certainly got to admire
his determination when the city's so obviously telling him
to go about by car
Yet a family visit to the new Riverside Museum – part of an attempt to revive one of the areas worst hit by recent decades’ changes – revealed how far Glasgow goes out of its way to thwart anyone who abandons the car. In a short walk from Partick railway station to the museum, we had to pick our way across first a busy, two-lane road, then take a bridge across a four-lane expressway, before immediately crossing a second, five-lane road. The traffic lights’ pedestrian (and cyclist) phase took so long to come around it seemed like a calculated insult.

The area is not the only one so thoroughly given over to roads. Four thick, grey ribbons of tarmac – two carriageways of a trunk road and two motorway carriageways – wind their way across one stretch of the city’s south side that might, without them, stand some chance of revival as hip, inner-city neighbourhoods. North American readers unfamiliar with the city should picture the way Detroit’s urban freeways slice through its neighbourhoods to understand the effect.
 
A Glasgow-built Cunarder tram in the Riverside Museum:
the acme of British tram design, from a city about to take
a wholly different path
The irony is that, on reaching the museum, visitors discover how well Glasgow once provided far more human-scale types of mobility. The Riverside Museum is full of tramcars (trolleys, American readers) dating back to the days when the city’s public transport system was noted for its modernity and comfort. Exhibits are devoted to the city’s subway, opened in 1896, only the third urban underground anywhere in the world, to which my late father devoted the prime of his life. That public transport allowed the city to support large numbers of people in neighbourhoods densely-packed enough to support large numbers of shops, cinemas and other amenities. The tram tracks were ripped out and the urban motorways built in the same wave of modernisation during which Moses slashed Red Hook from Carroll Gardens with the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, severed Manhattan from its waterfront with the Henry Hudson Parkway and made suburban Long Island entirely car-dependent by building only expressways to serve new housing. There was certainly a need for some modernisation. In both Glasgow and New York, the post-war period saw the elimination of many notorious, dangerous, insanitary slums. It's simply hard looking at the end results to believe there wasn't a better way to achieve the goal.

I was particularly alive to the nature of Glasgow’s failure because during the trip I was reading 722 miles, Clifton Hood’s fine history of the building of New York’s subways. In it, he laments how after the first world war, John Hylan, the then-mayor, sponsored subway construction within then-built-up parts of the city but failed to keep extending the subways out to new, undeveloped areas. The result was that areas like Staten Island developed entirely differently from other bits of the city. As I can testify from personal experience, they remain dominated by wide roads full of fast-moving cars. It wasn’t hard to spot a similar process at work in Glasgow. Roads blight swathes of places like Partick, Kinning Park and other areas of the city that once held far higher numbers of people. The populations of those areas are now further away from the city centre in areas so thinly-spread it’s far easier for people to get about by car than by public transport or bicycle.

It occurred to me this evening as I cycled home from work that parts of New York remain as blighted by roads as parts of Glasgow. The thought came into my head as I pedalled frantically across the West Side highway – four carriageways of dense, fast-moving traffic – to reach the Hudson River Greenway before the massed ranks of cars started roaring towards me. Yet New York enjoys the enormous benefit that no politician – even the most anti-cyclist, pro-motorist – would seriously suggest building, say, a new arm of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway devastating a new bit of booming Williamsburg. No-one would suggest devastating Hoxton in London with a new motorway.
 
Gavin Dalzell rode this, the world's oldest surviving pedal
bicycle, now preserved in the Riverside Museum, in Glasgow.
With admirable consistency, the city gave him a hard time for doing so.
Glasgow, however, has more in common with struggling cities across the North of England and the US’s mid-west. There’s a desperate edge to some of the transport policy decisions, a feeling that the next city over might prove more car-friendly and attract a vital few investors that could make all the difference. The cities consequently try a bit of everything – some bike routes, some new rail lines, a hulking new urban motorway slicing five miles through a reviving urban neighbourhood. I feel enough affection for Glasgow to hope that the strategy works better than I fear. The city’s continued hollowing-out to facilitate car travel certainly isn’t preventing a revival in vibrant areas such as Hillhead.

But I’d feel far more optimistic if I could picture myself cycling from Glasgow’s south side to its city centre through the kind of bustling city streets where I’ll ride tomorrow morning than under the looming viaduct that now bisects the Gorbals.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Free speech, tweeted threats and an angry Astoria van driver

It was one of my moral philosophy lecturers – I think it was Gordon Graham – who debunked for me an old – but rather flimsy – idea about the structure of the world. Addressing the idea that humans’ bodies and souls were somehow separate entities, he held up his hand, looked the other way and asked, “How do I know where my hand is?” The strong – unarguable, I think – contention was that people didn’t get their ideas about where their hands were across some barrier between the mind and the body. They knew where they were because their minds – which decided where they would put their hands – and their bodies – the hands that were moved – were the same things.

So I’ve been surprised over the last few weeks to notice a version of the mind-body separation hypothesis getting a new life among angry people on the Internet. I’ve pointed out to several people venting their frustration on Twitter that they’re potentially making their own lives difficult when they threaten (for example) to run over the next cyclist they see riding “in the middle of the road”. If they hit a cyclist with their car in the future – even unintentionally – the act will look deliberate and the charges will be more severe. Most prefer at that point not to reply. But a few have replied indignantly that nothing could be further from their mind when writing about crushing a cyclist beneath their car’s wheels than actually doing so. Their angry opinions and their blameless on-road actions are as separate as a classical philosopher would say a grubby body and a pure mind (or, in this case, a grubby mind and pure body) should be.

Angry Twitter users should love this rider on London's
Clapham Common. He's done as they've asked and got onto
the pavement to ride.
The incidents have made me ponder whether I’m somehow a humourless prude for failing to catch the innate hilariousness of someone’s warning that she’s going to “run over” the next cyclist she sees on the road rather than the pavement (sidewalk, American readers). Should I, as one of the “run over” woman’s friends suggested, simply “get a life”?

Or are these Tweets verbal expressions of attitudes that carry over into real-life driving behaviour and lead to real deaths and injuries? Are the opinions as inseparable from the drivers’ actions as Professor Graham’s hand and his mind?

The question is all the more pressing after a fortnight in the US when the Supreme Court has moved gays and lesbians a significant step forward in their struggle for equal rights, but moved black people several steps back. There’s no doubt that the growing unacceptability of racist and homophobic language has helped to move those groups’ struggles forward. Should it remain socially acceptable to threaten to drive one’s car over someone just because he or she has chosen to use a bicycle on a public road?

None of this, of course, is to deny Twitter’s ultimate triviality. For some time, the most retweeted message was a sickly sweet farewell by Justin Bieber to a six-year-old fan who'd died of cancer. The vast bulk of what appears there can be treated much as one might the rantings of the drunk at the next table in the pub. It’s mildly irritating - but something one can and should ignore.

There is, nevertheless, a direct, graphic quality to the threats some Twitter users make towards cyclists that makes them worthy of attention. In late June, one user, Ray O’Connor, tweeted this message for the next cyclist that he regarded as being too far out in the road: “I will buckle your back wheels c**ts #IWillRunYouOver.”. Another user, @brinky91, said in a now-inaccessible message around the same time that she would “run over” the next cyclist she found riding in the middle of the road. In April, another user, @LaurenKoerber tweeted: "I f***ing hate f***ing people that ride their bikes in the middle of the road.. Like you're not a car #iwillrunyouover."
 
Bad news for angry Twitter users: these riders on
the Manhattan Bridge have bikes and look likely to use them.
Good news: they're not on a road.
These are, I think, the kinds of threats that, expressed towards many other groups, would attract at least some attention from the police, interested to see how serious the threats’ makers were about carrying them out.

The threateners, however, seem almost as indignant at the idea that the threats are serious as I am at their making the threats. “I WASN’T REALLY GOING TO HIT A CYCLIST GEESH,” shouted one typical replier - @AMILLIAMELY - after I queried her suggestion that she might “gain points” in the game of road use by hitting cyclists who rode “in the middle of the street”. Others prefer self-pity, whining that they’re getting “grief” from “cycling fanatics”, as if that were an unusual result of making death threats to strangers in a public place. @brinky91 pleaded that her threats simply reflected her “opinion” to which she had a perfect right. People should leave her alone. @AMILLIAMELY went on to tell me that she simply liked to express her opinion about things that made her “mad” and that it helped her to feel better.

Yet the more I read such declarations of innocence the more I think about the fate of John Kelly, a cyclist who was riding his bike in Astoria, part of the New York borough of Queens in mid-March.  Mr Kelly was using a bike lane when witnesses saw a van come from behind him, swerve into the bike lane and hit him. He ended up clinging by the wipers to the windshield, the driver staring at him with what Mr Kelly called an “angry look” on his face. When Kelly managed to jump off, the driver escaped. Few regular urban cyclists will have been surprised at news of the van driver’s attack. It was merely an extension of the kind of aggressive, deliberately dangerous driving to which many of us are, unfortunately, used.
 
This cyclist on Glasgow's Cathcart Road is wearing
specialist clothes, is (rightly) well out in the road
and amid some traffic. He could be a perfect storm for
cyclist-haters' rage
The van driver’s attack so closely paralleled the kind of violent assault-by-motor-vehicle that I’ve seen Twitter users say they want to carry out that I can’t accept the two are entirely separate phenomena. It’s clearly better if the people with whom I’ve debated haven’t deliberately used their cars to hit people. But I found it hard to believe the claims of one indignant threat-maker that he was always a careful driver. Is it really credible that a driver who tweets after a trip that he would like to run over cyclists will carefully pass every cyclist he sees on his next trip patiently and at a safe distance? The threat-makers are almost certainly over-represented among people killing and injuring people riding on the roads.

Which leaves the question of @brinky91’s right to voice her opinion that she’d like to crush my body with her car.

There is no doubt that a civilised society has a huge interest in protecting the right to express a wide range of opinions – including ones that gravely offend other people. Free speech provides the fuel for the great race between ideas that makes free societies superior to closed ones. It mans the feeding stations in the great, ever-running stage race between ideologies. There need to be excellent reasons – protection of a person’s right not to be unjustly defamed, for example, the prevention of direct incitement to violence and the protection of a handful of official secrets – to put serious curbs on the right.

But it remains absurd for people voicing an opinion to complain that others loudly disagree. It is as if Chris Froome were to take to complaining in the coming weeks that other riders were attacking him on mountain stages of the Tour de France. There is occasionally an unpleasant whiff of bullying about the way Twitter users can round on someone indulging in unpopular speech, bombarding him or her with messages of protest. But, in cases where someone has threatened real, graphic violence as some of those I have mentioned did, it seems perfectly reasonable that he or she should understand how many of the verbal attack’s victims strongly resent that language.

Speech, after all, is valuable precisely because it is an echo-chamber, amplifying our thoughts and allowing us to try out ideas about the world before taking them from our brains to our hands. I feel constrained as I cycle around New York to behave well precisely because I have written here that everyone should do so. I can’t help thinking that motorists whose Tweets about maiming or killing cyclists have received only the sneering agreement of their friends will feel justified in driving far less carefully. If I have a choice between fending off dangerous driving with a swift brake application and evasive manoeuvring or a few strokes on a keyboard, I know which I’m going to choose.

You can follow the Invisible Visible Man - who promises never to threaten another road user's life - at @RKWInvisibleman