Sunday, 25 May 2014

An angry off-duty policeman, a rainy night - and why the suburbs are coming for your bike lane

It was 8.30pm on Friday and I was battling my way home from Greenpoint, at Brooklyn’s northern tip, through a thunderstorm of the kind that reminds one New York’s weather arrives partly from the tropics. I’d just got south of the Williamsburg Bridge on Kent Avenue when, looking ahead, I could see there was a car parked blocking most of the bike lane.

I naively assumed for a moment that perhaps the driver had made a mistake. Perhaps, despite the clear markings, in the torrential rain the driver just hadn’t spotted the bike lane.
The Kent Avenue bike lanes: a great place to park,
if you're entitled and unpleasant.

Instead, I was about to discover an almost beautifully distilled summary of what remains wrong with attitudes to cycling and road law enforcement in New York City. Some of those attitudes are peculiar to this big, crazy malfunction of a metropolis, while others are frustratingly widespread across the industrialised world. Cyclists, according to this attitude, are an odd, fringe group whose concerns needn’t be taken seriously.

But that’s putting the cart of theorising before the horse of anecdotal evidence.

The car stood out because it was so obviously in the wrong place. The parking spaces along Kent Avenue are all in the road, while a two-way bike lane runs along the kerb. The car’s headlights were glaring back at me, through the rain, more or less right in my path. Every other car for blocks was neatly parked outside the bike lane. As I approached, I expressed my irritation by waving to the motorist to move. It was a waste of effort. Even so, I might have said nothing if the motorist had not, as I rode slowly past in the remaining portion of the southbound bike lane, rolled down his window and said something, which I didn’t catch, but sounded abusive.

The insolence of the gesture switched me into “Invisible Visible Avenger” mode. I rapped sharply on the now-closed window and told the driver, “Shift! You’re in the bike lane.”

When the window rolled down again, the face looking back at me was a man, probably in his thirties, solidly built and wearing a baseball cap. He looked unimpressed with being asked to move.

“I’ll park wherever I want,” he replied.

“It’s illegal,” I said. “You’re blocking the bike lane.”

His reply alone would make a fascinating blogpost on its own – and certainly a fascinating contribution to Sarah Goodyear’s recent piece for the Atlantic Cities about cycling and masculinity.

“I’m picking up my baby,” he said. There was a child in a car seat in the back.

“What’s more important – my baby or your faggot-assed bike?”

The weight of his cultural assumptions was suddenly crashing and swirling around inside my head as frantically as the rain was lashing down outside it. There was the tone of injured innocence, so typical of a certain kind of self-righteous motorist. “I’m trying to go about my life the way normal, respectable people do,” he seemed to be telling me. “Yet here you, cyclist, are trying to intrude and ruin it.”

The assumptions behind the “faggot-assed bike” comment are even more breathtaking. He was driving a Dodge Avenger – a mid-size sedan with a more powerful than normal engine and an aggressive look. The car was an embodiment of his assumption that real men drive fast, aggressive cars. I, in my human-powered earnestness, represented weakness so transgressive as not to be fully male. My behaviour was so strange that even my bicycle suddenly assumed a sexual orientation.

And, of course, his attitude was turning this into a battle of wills, which I wasn’t prepared to lose.

“What’s important is that you’re blocking the bike lane,” I told him. “Look. I can call the police if you like.”
 
I use this photo for balance. The NYPD isn't the only
emergency service that ignores bike lanes
It was a bluff, based on my knowledge that no NYPD officer would deal with a call about a driver's obstructing a bike lane, particularly in a thunderstorm. But it opened up a whole new front in the battle.

“Call the police if you like,” he said, grabbing a sheaf of papers from his dashboard and shoving them towards me. They bore the logo of the New York Police Department and looked like some internal police directory. “This is the police right here.”

It would be reasonable to ask at this point why I believed him to be a police officer. Suffice it to say that I had a run-in once in London with someone who claimed to be a Metropolitan Police community support officer. His claim never rang true and, sure enough, when I complained to the police they said he was nothing to do with them.

The arrogance, self-confidence and sense of entitlement of the Angry Avenger Driver of Kent Avenue struck me as far more convincing.

It would be still more sensible to ask why, faced with a homophobic, cyclist-hating police officer who thinks his role entitles him to break the law, I didn’t cut my losses and leave. That, I imagine, is how a more balanced, contented person might have behaved.

Yet by now the Invisible Visible Avenger was in sole charge.

“What’s your badge number?” I asked.

“You got room to pass, don’t you?” he asked. “I ain’t stoppin’ you.”

“Are you a police officer?”

“Yes, I am. You shouldn’t be riding in the rain.”
 
There are two ways to read the NYPD's decision to put
"Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect" on the side of their
vehicles. They're either wholly out of touch or - which I
prefer - have a brilliant satirist in their image department
“Tell me your badge number.”

“Stop ridin’ in the rain.”

“What’s your badge number?”

“I don’t have to tell you shit.”

It was the last I heard from him. Silently, recognising reason wouldn’t work, I strode over to a nearby wall, leaned my bike against it and started to get my camera out of my pannier bag. Recognising, I suppose, that his bosses might take a dim view of discovering his views on a whole range of matters, the officer made off into the dark, rainy night. My sole sliver of victory was that I’d got him out of the bike lane. I felt far less fearful than after some previous confrontations with recalcitrant motorists.

But, as I headed on homeward, water squelching in my waterlogged shoes, I felt depressed. The previous morning, I’d been delighted as I rode to work to see a police officer ticketing a driver parked in the bike lane on Jay St in downtown Brooklyn and had shouted my thanks to him. The Kent Avenue encounter made me think that other reports I heard last week – of the police ticketing cyclists for relatively harmless breaches of Prospect Park’s one-way rules, for example – were more representative of current police attitudes.

The officer’s self-righteousness bothered me most. The comment about how I shouldn’t be riding in the rain suggested a strong underlying assumption that cycling was a trivial, leisure activity while driving a car was the serious act of a responsible person. Illegal driving consequently trumped perfectly legal cycling.

My mind went back to when two City of London police officers stopped me in London, accusing me of cycling dangerously by squeezing past their vehicle. They and other motorists had been illegally blocking an intersection where I had the light. In both that and Friday’s incident, there was the sense that the police officers, in their car, were implicitly the responsible grown-ups.

The officer’s arrogant assertion of his right to park wherever he liked spoke to something similar to the previous day’s ticket blitz in Prospect Park. The traffic rules for some police officers seem unimportant on their own terms – as a means to prevent people’s being harmed – but a series of traps, like the Russian tax code. They’re there to use as a stick to beat whatever group one wants to beat today or to fill up an unfilled quota of tickets.
 
NYPD cruisers in midtown: five carloads of suburban
assumptions, coming your way
The proliferation on New York City cars of stickers showing the driver’s allegiance to this or that police benevolent association – lucky charms to ward off the evil eye of an arbitrary traffic stop – suggests others share my perception of police attitudes.

Not that, for me, the consequences were ultimately important. As a middle-aged white professional, I’m self-evidently a poor target for a harassment arrest. Had I been a younger black or Hispanic man, I would probably have made off the moment I realised I was dealing with the police.

Blacks, Hispanics, gays and many other minority groups face far worse than cyclists generally do at the hands of the NYPD. I’m certainly in a far better position than the 28-year-old mentally ill man who used to live round the corner from me. After he stabbed – but only lightly wounded – his uncle, the police pumped seven bullets into him, killing him.
 
Williamsburg, near the scene of my encounter: no vision
of suburban respectability
Yet I don’t think it’s a stretch to see in the dismissive attitude of police in London and New York to cyclists’ complaints a symptom of the disconnect between police and policed. In both cities, officers live in outlying, suburban areas where car use is a symbol of a certain kind of conventional respectability. It’s not hard to imagine such officers are fundamentally at odds with much of the reality of the urban life they’re policing, from casual, harmless use of illegal drugs to rising levels of cycling.

Both cities’ residents have fought long battles with their police forces – over their racism, their homophobia, their sense they’re above the law. Yawning gaps persist between police and public attitudes. This year in New York started with bold declarations about eradicating road deaths. I arrived home on Friday discouraged, feeling that some of the police who should be helping towards that goal are part of the problem rather than the solution.

42 comments:

  1. Beating up on yourself for confronting the entitlted, bullying, lawbreaking cop is the last thing you should do. You did exactly the right thing confronting him, and in the right way. Your depression will pass; indeed, I'll bet it already has, as you have channeled your appropriate rage and unfortunate real-time impotence into a powerful piece that will help bring about change. Keep it up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Charles,

      You are too kind.

      I was gloomy about the prospects, I suppose, rather than really depressed. It's OK. It was nothing like as frightening as the run-in I had a little while ago with a taxi driver. That's up before the TLC on Thursday.

      Robert.

      Delete
    2. Dmitri,

      Thank you,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  2. Agree with Charlie. You did the right thing, and as you said, given your status, you could do it relatively safely.

    We are fighting our own battle with police arrogance and violence in Albuquerque, as you might know by reading the Times or listening to NPR. The move towards the police seeing themselves as warriors in a Fallujah world, and the rest of us as the enemy, is a bad situation that needs to be stopped in its tracks. Some thoughts of mine are here.
    http://www.labikes.blogspot.com/2014/03/albuquerque-police-dept-and-maslows.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Khal,

      The story in your blogpost is depressing indeed. It's a little similar to the shooting round the corner from my apartment of the mentally-disturbed person with the knife. He certainly had a knife - but it's hard to see that killing him was an appropriate or proportionate response.

      It's tough. In a heavily-armed society, I'm sure as a policeman it sometimes feels necessary to be constantly on one's guard. On the other hand, the United States is a democracy and large parts of it aren't all that violent. Many police forces need to rethink their internal culture.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  3. My sense reading this was that he was NOT police. Waving some papers around that bear the police department logo indicates he has had recent dealings WITH the police - which, from his behaviour and attitude, may see him on the wrong side of the law. On the one hand, I may sound idealistic - but on the other, frankly I think he was totally having you on.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Rebecca,

      I can only say that I think you'd have thought differently if you'd been there. The papers had a big, full-colour NYPD logo on the front. They looked like some kind of internal directory, rather than something a civilian would have. More to the point, he went for the police line with no hesitation, rather than hesitating in the way someone who's having to come up with a lie would do. He also had the arrogant self-confidence that many NYPD officers seem to display. I've had run-ins with civilians in New York. They tend much more to go in for straightforward aggression, I feel. There was a sense of smugness about the situation that I think stemmed from his sense that he had a get-out-of-jail-free card or badge. I also, as I mentioned, contrasted it with my experience in London with someone who was lying about having a police role. I never found him convincing in the way that this character was.

      But, of course, if I'm wrong the story falls apart and I just came across another unpleasant, abusive motorist.

      Delete
    2. If there had been two of you cycling, I'd have strongly suggested that one start filming while the other called the police on him.

      Alone, it's too dangerous -- he's likely to murder you if there are no witnesses. They're usually a bit afraid to murder two people, it's hard to do.

      Delete
  4. I worry about those "Invisible Visible Avenger" tendencies a bit: you seem to have a lot of up-close run-ins with "entitled and unpleasant" motorists, but a touching faith that none of them are going to respond to admonishment with violence. I share your indignation, but staying alive is more important than scoring debating points against some ass parked in the bike lane! I admit that getting all "avenge-y" makes for compelling blog-posts (I can vicariously be fearless, eloquent, and considerably larger in my imaginary interactions with the naughty drivers of New York!), but personally, I discourage my husband from stopping our tandem to have cozy chats with motorists behaving badly because I don't feel it's safe.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. QMacrocarpa,

      Your worry isn't entirely misplaced. I bite my tongue more than might be apparent. But I spend all day being told not to take lame excuses for an answer and to go after malefactors hard. I don't find it easy to stop when I leave work.

      In London, I had a bus driver assault me (only very mildly) by slapping out of my hand the mobile phone I was using to photograph him as he strode off his bus to have a go at me. On another occasion, I was foolishly so excited at spotting miles later a motorist I'd spotted noising up a fellow cyclist that I tried to take his picture. That was scary because he came after me and only a call to the police saved the situation. So I'm aware it can be dangerous.

      I'll try to stop.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  5. A major application of cycling helmet laws are that police use them to harass cyclists just as they use failed equipment to harass motorists.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're right that failed equipment is used to harass motorists. In New York City, there are far more stops for excessively tinted windows than speeding. And, of course, the cops will sometimes hand out a helmetless riding ticket for the hell of it, even though it's not illegal.

      But my heart's bleeding more for cyclists at the moment than poor beleaguered motorists, for perhaps obvious reasons.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  6. just had words with a cabbie this morning - nothing good ever comes of it, but it is hard not to react to someone being an azzhat

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree, Anonymous at 10:20. In fact, I so much agree that on Thursday I'm giving evidence to the Taxi and Limousine Commission about a TLC driver who tried to grab my camera and bike when I tried to take a picture of him parked in the bike lane at the junction of Jay and Fulton Streets in downtown Brooklyn.

      Delete
  7. http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/9380972/Cop-not-guilty-of-assault-after-running-into-cyclist
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nySs1cEq5rs
    Unfortunately these attitudes are not uncommon anywhere it seems.

    emanuel ferretti

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Emanuel,

      Thank you for pointing those out, although they're pretty depressing.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  8. I find that the least sympathetic police work in the outer borough precincts. One time I asked a police officers in an SUV cruiser to do something about all the cars parked in the Vernon Ave bike lane, to which they responded by taking out a cell phone and taking a picture of me while laughing. They then pulled up to an intersection and casually rolled through the red light as if to rub in their authority.

    The idling cars meanwhile never moved.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Beatlescrazyman,

      I rode up the Vernon Avenue bike lane yesterday. There's a real problem with vehicles intruding into it and someone should address it. I guess we can be confident it won't be the police, however.

      I note, meanwhile, that the NYPD are ticketing cyclists today on the Upper West Side, in an utterly depressing illustration of how little they understand what's needed to make the streets safer.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. Someone's got to start arresting those criminal "cops". Next time they drive through a red light, they should get taken down with extreme prejudice. Unfortunately, to do that, you first need to organize a local police force...

      Delete
  9. Good post, showing the impossibility of finding the middle path which will change attitudes and improve the bike situation, while at the same time not risking your own life. We just have to do the best we can. I tend to assume that most of the egregious violators cannot be persuaded or even reasoned with effectively and safely, so for the most part I try to remain invisible. Perhaps cameras and public exposure will actually influence attitudes ever so slowly. Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dave,

      Thank you for your kind words.

      Although it might not seem that way, I tend to pick my battles. One can't yell at everyone.

      A camera might be useful. I've avoided getting one, however, because I thought it might increase my stress. Also, it would be time-consuming downloading and editing the footage and the Invisible Visible Woman already has legitimate complaints about the high proportion of my time eaten up with either working or writing this blog.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  10. Samantha Davis27 May 2014 16:11

    Robert, don't feel depressed or discouraged. You stood up for what's right and spoke truth to power. It many not change anything today or tomorrow, but change will not come if people remain silent. The bleakest times NYC has faced were when people gave up and chose to leave or be silent.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Samantha,

      Thank you. I'm depressed on an existential "when will this ever change?" level, rather than an I-hate-myself-why-do-I-carry-on? level. So I'm getting by. A nice Memorial Day bike ride with my wife and children helped too, even if I came across a vehicle partially obstructing the Kent Avenue bike lane at almost exactly the same spot as on Friday.

      Thank you for your kind words of support.

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. "I'm depressed on an existential "when will this ever change?" level"

      It will change when the infrastructure has been upgraded to make it hard for cars to penetrate onto the cycling lane. Painted lines are never enough to eliminate parked cars. In the meantime, go around parked cars when it's safe, and don't take so many chances with your safety with spontaneous rants to strangers in parked cars. These can turn nasty and no one wants you to get hurt.

      Delete
    3. Qatzek,

      I do largely go round. It's only when the abuse is especially flagrant that I talk to the driver. There's more risk assessment going on than might be apparent.

      The thing about this guy was I initially thought he might just be confused. I never dreamt it would just turn out he thought he could break the rules because he was a cop.

      I find the concern of you and other readers touching, however.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  11. I share your dismay at people who are supposed to be in authority being smug about abusing it. I do know police officers who are awesome human beings and who apply the law fairly. But I also know that it is very difficult for them, both in training and personality, to defy the "standard" of their department. So it starts at the very top. The League of American Bicyclists' 5 E's has "Education" as one of them. Educating our police chiefs that ALL citizens are of value is paramount. If the Chief sets the standard most of the officers will follow. Sadly, my experience (even when a prosecutor) is that the Chief will set the politically astute standard. So then it gets to our elected officials. The Mayor, or whatever that equivalent job title, needs to hold the Chief personally responsible and the department corporately responsible. Feeling a little like Sisyphus with that challenge! Thanks for sharing this and for being bold. Do be careful. The other Invisible Visibles need you to be more than a legend. :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. South Lakes,

      Thank you for your kind words.

      You're right that elected officials have to set the tone for police officers. Sadly, there's a history in New York City of there being unelected officials - whether police chiefs or Robert Moses - who are more powerful than the mayor. I think the present police chief probably wants to improve road safety. But there's a baleful legacy from his predecessor - and I'm not sure that stamping out the kind of nonsense I encountered is a top priority. The scale of the task is indeed of the kind Sisyphus would have recognised. That's why the position's depressing.

      I do try to be careful, meanwhile. There are far more fights I don't pick than those I do.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  12. What an utter fabrication of horse manure. We both know that you really rode your "Faggity ass" bicycle around the car and pretty much fabricated this entire story as you rushed home to sip on your choco-mocha latte. Grow a set of balls and actually dare to confront the driver instead of delving into a whimsical fantasy based diatribe where upon you alter ego vanquished the dreaded bike lane moocher. Oh the humanity of it all. Act more and blog less, cupcake.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous,

      I note, among other points, that you have taken the courageous decision to go by the name "Anonymous" when posting here.

      If you don't believe what I wrote, tough. It's still true.

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. Your are damn right I do not believe a word out of your "faggity assed" mouth. You expect me to believe after all the effort you went through to engage this person that you did not have the brain cells to take a proper picture of the car, the plate or the person. How dare you try to pass off this piece of fecal matter as a legitimate blog.

      Delete
    3. As the piece explains, I had a camera in my bag and it's when I went to get it that he left. It's undoubtedly an issue that I don't have a decent smartphone that could take such pictures or use a helmet camera but I don't write lies here or anywhere else and I also have the courage to say who I am.
      Also, I don't appreciate your unpleasant use of abusive language.

      Delete
  13. Interesting how now you make excuses for the lack of any evidence. Dag- nappbit..Let us blame the smartphone instead of the dim witted fool who owns it. Luckily for you and your fantasy based story, there are no witnesses or evidence. Surely, you do not expect us to take the word of a person who actively embellishes the hell out of every blog he posts? As for the abusive language, i am merely quoting the very language that you used in your sorry blog. You are not to smart are you? Never mind...Please do not bother answering the latter question for your actions have answered it for me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's you, isn't it? You're the officer from last Friday, aren't you?

      But I'll give you your due. I am finding it hilarious that you are actually dumb enough to post the comment, "You're not to smart, are you?" I'm sure there's some fancy Greek term for an accusation that actually says more about the accuser than the accused.

      Very funny. Well done.

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. Ha I think you might just be right, Invisible. If true, this guy is even more stupid than he came across in your original post.

      I'm no expert on this stuff, but isn't it possible to trace the IP address to get a name, and then you'll be able to do an image search on his name + NYPD, see if it's the right chap, then file a police complaint?

      Delete
    3. Adrian,

      The comment was one of several that came in after some police officer posted my blogpost on some strange website for unpleasant police officers with an invitation that people post abusive messages. I deleted the others after I realised what was going on and disabled comments for a while. That's why, unfortunately, I've had to switch to moderated comments.

      So it might be my guy or it might not.

      The abusive post has now been taken down. While I might not, according to these people, be "to smart," I'm smart enough not to post stuff that breaches multiple aspects of a web-hosting service's user agreement.

      Invisible.

      Delete
    4. I had an experience last night which reminded me of this blog post. I was cycling north in the Dean St bike lane (around Bond St, where the speed limit is 20mph), when a black SUV flew past me doing at least 40mph and straying into the bike lane. When I inevitably caught up to the guy at the next lights, we had the following conversation:
      Me - Do you know what the speed limit on this road is?
      Him - Why would that matter?
      Me (slightly taken aback) - well it's illegal and unsafe to be doing 40mph in a residential 20mph zone
      Him - I'm NYPD, I'll just show my badge if I get stopped
      Me - I'm slightly shocked to see the NYPD is so open about breaking the laws you're theoretically supposed to uphold
      Him - Where are you from?
      Me - Why is that relevant?
      Him - Tell me, I'm doing a survey. You sound kinda English
      Me - Kinda English, as in from England?
      Him - I'm from New York all my life
      Me - so are you saying that people from New York don't have to obey the laws of New York, or that people from New York are unable to read massive lettering in the road saying 20mph?
      Him - I know the laws of New York
      Me - You evidently don't you *********
      Him - You shouldn't even be here, go back home

      Unfortunately I don't have any means to video interactions like these, but what startled me most was the guy's brazen confidence (when accused of acting illegally) in announcing that he was NYPD and all he would have to do would be to flash his badge to get off it. That is a rotten culture right there...

      Delete
    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    6. Adrian,
      I definitely see why your experience reminded you of what happened to me. It's a huge cultural issue that so many NYPD officers seem to regard traffic laws as a trap for the unwary, not an end in themselves.
      As for this "I'm more New Yorker than you" garbage, just ask him if he's Lenape. If he isn't, he's an incomer. It's just a question of when the ship or plane arrived.
      All the best,
      Invisible.

      Delete
  14. Wow I can't believe you have to ride in a 2 way bike lane on a 2 way street. How incredibly dangerous or is that just another way of discouraging cycling while pretending to be building infrastructure to support it? I live in Australia where you cycle on the same side as the traffic. Unfortunately there are still lots of dumb motorist...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous,
      It's a one-way street. The picture in the post shows the view south, while the cars go north. The East River is to the right, so a two-way bike lane on that side of the street is a good, safe solution - except when some fool parks in the lane.
      All the best,
      Invisible.

      Delete
  15. The treatment of cyclists as second class citizens on the city roads is just appalling, they're saving the environment after all! I'm not a resident of New York city but I found these stories very interesting nonetheless.

    ReplyDelete

Please feel free to leave civilised comments - positive or negative - here. I'll try to reply too.

Abusive comments will be moderated out and won't appear.