Sunday, 10 July 2016

A prosecutor's phone call, remembrance of stresses past - and why I'm glad of a public policy miracle

It was on Friday afternoon, as I was sitting at my new desk in my office in London, that a phone call took me lurching back into the stresses of my daily cycle commute in New York.

The North-South Cycle Superhighway, at Southwark Street: surprising balm for the soul.
The call came from a prosecutor at the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission who was dealing with a complaint I’d submitted in May. Within a few minutes, I was being sworn in and examined at a hearing of the commission’s tribunal. It was the first time, after a succession of driver no-shows and last-minute plea bargains, that I’ve actually had to testify against a driver. Then, I was cross-examined by the attorney for a driver who’d first tailgated me and a group of other cyclists then driven down a street yelling abuse at me. I felt my heart racing and my temper rise.

But it was only a little later, as I discussed the joys of London’s new cycle superhighways with colleagues, that it dawned on me why the call from New York had set off quite so many fight-or-flight responses. Having arrived back in the UK with my family early on Thursday, I’d had two days of mostly stress-free cycling riding on London’s new segregated cycle tracks. The experience, it dawned on me, had lifted a burden of anxiety that had sat on me all the time I battled with New York’s drivers. As I recounted the tailgating then dealt with the cross-examination from the driver’s attorney, the burden’s full weight came crushing down on me again.

That low-stress riding has produced in me - to my own surprise - an unusual feeling of lightness of spirit when I’m on my bike. This weekend, staying with my parents-in-law in rural Cheshire, I noticed when I took my bike on a muddy, sometimes hard-to-navigate country trail that I was willing to tackle trickier slopes and tougher surfaces than I had been when riding similar routes while living in New York. There are undoubtedly complex public policy questions about how much road space in London to allocate to bicycles and how much to other traffic. But, for me in the short term, the changes’ effect has been to liberate a little joy in my soul.

A muddy section of the Wirral Trail, in Cheshire:
site of my unaccustomed boldness

Even if I’d still been in New York, however, it would still have been stressful to relive the events of the morning of May 12 - all the more so because they reflected failings typical of New York’s streets. I’d complained about a taxi driver who drove close behind me and some other cyclists, trying to honk us out of his way, as we moved to turn left at the busy intersection of Canal and Allen Streets. After I photographed the driver so that I could report him, he drove parallel to me as I rode up Allen Street, shouting what sounded like abuse at me as I rode in the street’s - thankfully protected and segregated - bike lane.

The incident reflected many of the weaknesses of New York’s provision for cyclists. The two blocks of Canal St where I was riding connect the Manhattan Bridge bike path - one of the city’s busiest cycling locations - with the bike lanes on Allen St, a critical, high-quality, north-south route. Yet those two blocks are busy, chaotic and devoid of any cycling provision save for some rather optimistic “sharrow” markings. Those are generally obscured beneath double-parked vehicles.

Conditions were particularly challenging on the morning in question because Canal St had just been milled - had its surface removed prior to laying of new tarmac. The manhole covers and other ironwork - always potential landmines of the New York streetscape - were sticking up well above the temporary surface, presenting a high-stakes obstacle course for commuting cyclists.

The honking taxi driver of milled Canal St:
a picture to get the stress hormones racing
By contrast, the striking feature of my rides so far on London’s new cycle tracks is that they provide seamless journeys. The paths are generally continuous, mostly wide and, so far at least, have excellent, high-quality surfaces. I can think of almost no piece of cycling infrastructure in New York - including the Hudson River Greenway, the city’s best route - that so completely eliminates the challenge for cyclists of interacting with drivers.

The London routes don’t, like so much provision in New York, disappear at the points where conditions get most challenging. From my temporary accommodation in Limehouse, East London, I zipped to work on Thursday and Friday down Upper Thames Street, a traffic sewer through the City of London financial district. Riding there used to involve terrifying games of chicken with big trucks and black taxis. Last week, it was, for the first time I can recall, a positive pleasure to ride on, thanks to the east-west cycle superhighway, which bore me down towards Southwark Bridge untroubled by any interactions with the neighbouring vehicles. The contrast with the treatment of difficult areas in New York - say, the section of Second Avenue where cyclists have to deal with traffic turning into the Queens-Midtown Tunnel - could scarcely be more stark.
Upper Thames Street: a cycling paradise if not exactly
regained, at least found for the first time

Yet the grudging tone of those involved in the Taxi and Limousine Commission hearing was at least as depressing as the recollection of the incident itself. There seemed to be a general feeling that for a group of cyclists to be followed closely by an angrily honking taxi driver wasn’t really that big a deal. The defence attorney, meanwhile, demanded to know if I’d been in the bike lane when honked at. The question suggested the attorney didn’t know the street had no bike lane. It was built on the false assumption that bike lanes should serve as prisons for cyclists, not havens. It also entirely missed the point that a left-turning cyclist could scarcely stay in a bike lane on the right, even had one existed.
The Victoria Embankment not only hosts
those darling little lights - but an actual,
well-designed cycle track junction


London’s new cycle tracks, by contrast, feel like acts of generosity. They are mostly wide and those I’ve used so far seem well designed. My enthusiasm for them isn’t unique. One colleague - previously only an intermittent commuter cyclist - raved to me about how she could scarcely believe London had built such things. “They’ve got those little lights!” she squealed excitedly, referring to the small repeater traffic lights positioned at cyclists’ eye level. The other striking point is how quickly it’s possible to get around a city by bike when one isn’t constantly dodging around cars double-parked in bike lanes or grappling with “mixing zones” of vehicles trying to cross one’s path. My bike computer is consistently telling me I’m going around 1mph faster on average than I used to in New York.

The tracks’ building is clearly an act of political boldness that far outstrips even Janette Sadik-Khan’s efforts to put in cycling infrastructure in New York. The scale of that boldness was clear to me as my family and I rode on Thursday morning from Heathrow Airport to our temporary accommodation. At mid-morning, as we were making the trip, motor traffic remained heavy and very slow-moving while, next to us, wide, well-designed cycle lanes stood, getting only relatively light use.

It is hard to imagine any contemporary senior New York politicians’ having the nerve to try to push such a network not only through the city council but also through the myriad of community boards that are determined to obstruct progress. My experience of testifying before the taxi and limousine commission’s tribunal was certainly a reminder that there is so far not even the vaguest consensus in New York that cyclists have a legitimate place in urban transport.

In London, meanwhile, I share my colleague’s wonder at the cycle tracks’ construction. The tracks are associated closely with Boris Johnson, a bumbling mayor whose other contributions to British public life - including his role in the recent European Union referendum - have been almost entirely negative. The tracks were shepherded through by Andrew Gilligan, Johnson’s “cyclist tsar,” who received substantial, justified criticism for his shoddy methods in the 2004 Hutton Inquiry into the suicide of David Kelly, a government scientist whom Gilligan had used as a source.

London cyclists like these were yearning
for a miraculous transformation.
Astonishingly, they seem to have found one.
The tracks came to be built only after Johnson rashly built a network of extraordinarily dangerous “cycle superhighways” consisting only of paint on very busy main roads. The decision to build something better followed the justified outcry over the number of cyclists killed riding on the old super highways. That such a flawed process and flawed individuals could end up producing excellent, well-designed infrastructure feels like a public policy miracle.

But, of course, the miracle is a limited one. The cycle tracks cover only a relatively small area of central London. When not on them, I’ve already had some negative experiences. I was, for example, chased down a bus lane on Brixton Road on Thursday by an impatient van driver who should not have been in the lane at the time. This evening, as I cycled home from Euston station, on one of the few parts of the journey where I wasn’t using protected infrastructure, a minicab driver cut me off as I sought to pull out round a parked car. I can only hope that the cycle tracks are not so bold a step that they end up ripped out, as New York’s first experiments in segregated bike lanes were, when the complaints from motorists complaining about congestion became too much.

The other worries are for the future, however. I continue in many ways to pine for New York - its unique atmosphere, the open, friendly people, even the excitement of discovering the city by bike. But London’s bold cycling experiment makes me glad, at least when I’m on my bicycle, that I’m here.

16 comments:

  1. Probably the closest thing to London's cycle superhighways is the Kent Avenue path -- that's probably when I feel most free on a bicycle in NYC. But even then, that devolves into sharrows by the time one hits the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It's a shame -- there's really no good way to get north-south along the waterfront all the way to Fort Greene or MetroTech, either via bicycle or mass transit. Really looking forward to adoption of elements of London's system, and a bit more of the Dutch cycling infrastructure, in New York.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Daniel,

      I'm very much a fan of the Kent Avenue bike path. But, to be properly useful, it would link up properly to the Pulaski Bridge bike path and then onto the Vernon Boulevard route in Queens. It's also far less well-protected from intrusions than the London tracks. For instance, I had a nasty run-in one night with an off-duty NYPD officer who insisted on parking in the Kent Avenue lane - http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/an-angry-off-duty-police-man-rainy.html. The lane is also, of course, the designated parking area for some weddings at Satmar headquarters - and it's also frequently obstructed by delivery drivers or turning drivers. It's hard to overstate what a step forward London's tracks feel like if Kent Avenue is the best one's been used to.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. The best I've been used to is in The Netherlands. Once someone has gone Dutch, he will never, never want to use inferior crap ever again.

      Delete
    3. Kevin,

      Thanks for your comment. I haven't ridden in the Netherlands but I can imagine you're correct. The tracks in Copenhagen, which I know better than the Netherlands, are certainly impressive. Even in London, I'm noticing that I'm now feeling less enthusiastic than before about my painfully worked-out network of quiet back streets and other routes that involved some interaction with motor vehicles. The segregated routes have spoiled a lot of less good routes for me.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  2. Has there been a decision in the case you testified in?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment. I haven't yet had notice of the outcome. I'll post an update when I get one.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. grkeller 1972,

      I'm sad - and rather shocked - to report that I heard today from the TLC and that they acquitted the driver on all charges because they reckon he stayed a reasonable distance behind me and his behaviour wasn't harassment.

      It obviously was, so it's a stupid decision. But that's the decision.

      All the best from a city with slightly saner streets,

      Invisible.

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

      Delete
  3. Thanks for a fascinating account. I'm more of a driver now than a cyclist, but I have cycled close to 70,000 miles in my life (6 decades), including Seattle to Boston, and thousands of miles commuting in DC.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. David,
      Thank you for your kind words - and best wishes for shifting that cycling to driving ratio back towards what I'll presume to call the right direction.
      All the best,
      Invisible.

      Delete
  4. I'm very happy to have stumbled onto this blog. Being from very upstate New York, about 50 miles northwest of Albany, we easily use a mixture of bike paths (rail trails) and roads, generally without incident. A recent visit to Staten Island, and crossing the Verrazano Bridge, made us aware of the bike lane infrastructure in that area and we determined to make a couple day bike vacation of it in the fall (we primarily use Terratrike pedal trikes instead of bicycles). Maybe I need to reconsider that decision if the infrastructure is that hazardous.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lance,

      Thanks for that comment.

      I never like to put people off cycling anywhere. But I'd say it comes down to where in Staten Island you're planning to ride and what kind of bike lanes you're looking to use. I had a slightly scary experience trying to ride in Staten Island shortly after Superstorm Sandy, as I related here: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/staten-island-and-why-invisible-visible.html But I know that in other parts of the island there are good, quiet facilities.

      I hope the trip goes well.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  5. London Office? Has the residence changed back and I've somehow missed this? Inquiring minds want to know!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Steve,
      Thank you, as ever, for the comment. There have been a few oblique and not-so-oblique references in recent posts to the Invisible Visible Family's status. The last post, for example, referred to my going on a tour to say farewell to New York cycling: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/a-tour-of-tolerant-diversity-horrors-of.html But, long story short, we left the US on July 6. The cycling back here is nicer, but our hearts are heavy in many ways.
      I trust all is well out there in Pacific North-West.
      All the best,
      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. Well, London has the Queen while New York has Queens so maybe things aren't really all that different? Things are well in the PNW. The barbecue truck is at the IGA Grocery today so it's like Texas only cooler, greener, and more relaxed, though we only get monthly trash pickup instead of twice weekly pickup. Again, things aren't really all that different.

      Delete
  6. "excellent, well-designed infrastructure"

    A bi-directional cycle track is _not_ a well-designed infra.

    http://www.copenhagenize.com/search/label/bi-directional

    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.