Cars, Bikes, and People

Cars, Bikes, and People

I’m waiting, with a dozen other people, to cross Metropolitan Avenue. Mothers escorting kids home from school, hipsters languidly examining their iPhones, get-up-and-goers champing at the bit to get to the other side of the street, down the subway stairs, and onto the L train.

People are easing into the street and poking their heads into traffic long before the light shows any sign of changing, but nobody tries to cross. Even when the “walk” signal flashes to life, they wait, because they know at least a few cars or trucks are bound to ignore the red. Sure enough, we all take a couple steps back as a fully loaded semi roars past. In the driver’s defense, at the speed he was going it might have been more dangerous to slam on the brakes. Besides, there may have been a flicker of amber left in the signal when he entered the intersection.

He’s followed by a gray SUV that doesn’t even slow down, though the light’s been fully red for a few seconds now. It barrels around the corner and through the crowd as though we were so many bowling pins just crying to be sent flying.

Everybody jumps and scatters, nobody gets hit, let alone killed or injured. And, because this sort of thing is so commonplace, nobody utters more than a sigh or soft grumble in protest.

Then something marvelous happens. Actually, it didn’t, but it could have. Across the street, also waiting for traffic to clear, is an NYPD cruiser. You know how they say there’s never a cop around when you want one? This time there was, and the crime had taken place right under his nose.

I silently cheered at the prospect of seeing Mr. SUV Man hauled to the side of the road and, I hoped, taken away in chains. But the cop didn’t bat an eye, and the SUV dude drove off, probably not even vaguely aware how his casual haste had put a dozen people’s lives at risk. I wondered if the cop might have been more responsive if, instead of a reckless driver, he’d spied someone writing graffiti or smoking a joint.

But even at the height of Rudy Giuliani’s “zero tolerance” crackdown on petty crime and antisocial behavior, little attention was paid to careless, reckless, or even downright homicidal drivers, though they kill and injure as many people as “real” criminals, if not more.

The sad truth is that there’s an enormous double standard: mayhem, even of the murderous variety, is seldom considered a crime when committed by car or truck drivers unless it involves multiple fatalities and/or brazen drunkenness, and not always then.

If you ran through Times Square wielding a chain saw or a firearm, your chances of avoiding prison would be slim to nonexistent. Pull the same stunt with a speeding two-ton automobile, even if you put two or three people in the hospital or the morgue, it will most likely it will be deemed an unfortunate “accident.”

The public has developed an enormous blind spot when it comes to the car, which was never more obvious than when Mayor Bloomberg’s long-awaited bike sharing program began installing its first stations. Greenwich Villagers squealed like stuck pigs, as did denizens Brooklyn’s statelier sectors. “We’re not against bikes,” they cried, “but they’re just not appropriate for historic neighborhoods like ours.”

The streets are too narrow, they argued; there’s barely enough room even without bike stations. The more candid among them cut right to the chase: “It’s too hard to find parking as it is.”

A rack holding 15 or 20 bicycles and occupying what might have been two or three parking spaces is seen as freakishly unnatural. Yet nobody questions the same block’s several dozen parking spaces and one or more lanes devoted exclusively to cars and their owners.

Five people and four smogmobiles occupy the space that could contain a bus carrying 50 to 60 passengers, or 100 pedestrians. But apparently bicycles are the real cause of congestion!

Five people and four smogmobiles occupy space that could contain a 60-passenger bus or 100 pedestrians. But apparently bicycles are the real cause of congestion!

 “I drive from Brooklyn to the Village three or four times a week,” fumed one resident. “Where am I supposed to park with Bloomberg plopping his stupid bikes all over the place?”

But hang on here. What are you doing driving from Brooklyn to the Village anyway? Unless you’re crippled, transporting your aged mother to her mahjong club, or engaged in a business that involves hauling a lot of parts or samples, get on the subway with everyone else.

Every car that enters the city produces pollution and ancillary expenses hundreds of times greater than those generated by someone who walks, bikes, or uses public transit. The individual driver may enjoy a more convenient trip, but the costs of his comfort have to be borne by all of us.

What’s especially maddening is that much of the time it won’t even be convenient for the driver. He’ll wind up circling the block for an hour before he finds a parking place, or get hopelessly stuck in the traffic that he himself helped create. Maybe he’ll get dinged or sideswiped by an oversized van or an errant cyclist, or collect a $200 ticket because he misread the street sweeping signs.

You know what, buddy? Tough luck. We the taxpayers of New York City do not owe you a gold-plated parking place, or an unobstructed route for your smog-belching chariot. You want convenience and comfort, get your chauffeur to drive you in the limo.

Maybe getting behind the wheel of a car does something to a guy’s brain chemistry. One minute he’s good old Joe who lives down the block, the next he’s some high and mighty muckamuck, expecting the peasantry to scatter like frightened geese in advance of his advancing carriage.

It can be frustrating if you’re walking through town and get stuck behind someone who’s exasperatingly slow, but do you scream at the top of your lungs, “GET THE BLANKETY-BLANK OUT OF MY BLANKETY-BLANK WAY”? While there are exceptions, no, for the most part you do not. But put many a New Yorker behind the wheel and he’ll be pounding on his horn and yelling his head off if a traffic light has the temerity to turn red in front of him.

Standing in line at the bank? Would you elbow your way to the front of the queue, implicitly threatening to clobber anyone who doesn’t let you pass? Check out drivers who think they have the inalienable right to enter the Holland Tunnel right NOW, regardless of how long all those other schmucks have been waiting.

But I’m not here to deliver a single-minded anti-automobile diatribe, There are times and places when cars are necessary in New York City. Those times and places just happen to be a lot fewer than most car owners seem to think.

Bike riders don’t get a free pass, either. As much as I’ve always loved bikes, I’ve all but given up riding mine, partly because I no longer enjoy the combination of aggression and vigilance necessary to survive the streets of New York City.

But it’s also because I don’t want to be identified with the significant minority of—I can’t think of a nicer or more subtle word to describe them—assholes who seem to feel being on a bike gives them the right to run roughshod over anybody or anything in their path.

I’ve had two close calls while walking recently, one on the Queensborough Bridge, the other on 2nd Avenue, where I came within inches of being injured—or worse—by sociopathic bicyclists. One was speeding downhill at somewhere between 30 and 40 mph on a crowded and narrow footpath, the other had run a red light going the wrong way on a one way street, and tore through a group of us in the crosswalk as if we were contemptible idiots for even thinking about trying to walk where she was planning on riding.

Sure, you say, there will always be jerks like that, but aren’t the vast majority of cyclists law-abiding and respectful of their fellow citizens. Um, no. A majority? Maybe. Vast? Not even close.

I’m not talking about people who bend or break laws that were written for cars and don’t make much sense for bikes. Almost everybody does that. But the reckless, smug, almost psychotically self-absorbed cyclists I’m referring to make up as much as 20 to 30% of the two-wheeled population.

I have some insight into this mindset, because I was once a pretty obnoxious cyclist myself. Maybe not at Critical Mass levels, though I did participate in some of their early rides in Berkeley and San Francisco. But I was definitely one of those clowns who came to believe that anything hindering his progress from Point A to Point B, be it cars, pedestrians, or, last and least, traffic laws, was of trivial or no importance.

This attitude eventually softened and all but disappeared once I left the vortex of narcissism that is the San Francisco Bay Area. Besides, riding with that cavalier arrogance in London or New York seemed more likely to end badly. Maybe even fatally.

Even so, New York today is far more bicycle-friendly today than when I moved here—or, for that matter, than at any time since the invention of the internal combustion engine. Mayor Bloomberg deserves much of the credit for this, and he might have accomplished even more were it not for the curiously reactionary stance of Governor Cuomo. Cuomo, admirably progressive on most issues, is straight out of the 1950s when it comes to transportation policy.

Bloomberg’s bike share program aroused laughter and derision when first proposed, but though delayed and bedeviled by technical glitches, it’s off the ground and running relatively smoothly, something that would have been almost unimaginable in the bad old days of rampant crime, declining population, and collapsing infrastructure.

Unfortunately, a few poorly thought out details stand in the way of Mike’s Bikes becoming the full-fledged transportation alternative they ought to be. One of them is cost. The annual fee of $95 is reasonable enough, I guess, but daily and weekly rates are outrageous: including tax, it’s almost 11 bucks a day, 27 bucks for a week. You’re better off buying an unlimited MetroCard. By contrast, the highly successful London bike share program charges just £2 ($3.20) for 24 hours.

Another problem is that the New York program, at least thus far, only covers a relatively tiny sector of the city: basically Midtown and Lower Manhattan, and Downtown Brooklyn. Neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Astoria, which probably harbor more bicyclists per square inch than anywhere else in the city, are barely served (Williamsburg) or completely ignored (the other three).

This, combined with the 30-minute limit (45 minutes for annual members) on an individual bike, makes the program useless for many of those who would be most likely to use it. An example: say I’m in lower Manhattan and have an errand to run in Greenpoint. It’s the sort of trip that would be ideal for a bike, except that unless I’m Lance Armstrong, there’s no way I can pedal to Greenpoint, take care of my business, and return the bike to Manhattan in time to avoid paying an overtime penalty.

Hopefully bike stations will eventually come to the 80% of New York City currently left out of the system, but until that happens, and until the daily fee is reduced to something more affordable for ordinary New Yorkers, Mike’s Bikes will remain mostly a tourist toy and plaything for the privileged.

So I won’t be giving up my MetroCard just yet, and will continue to do most of my non-subway travel on foot. But speaking of which, it wouldn’t do to finish up this rant—er, thoughtful and reasoned rumination—without noting that pedestrians, salt of the New York City earth that they may be, have faults as well.

They inflict by far the least environmental damage, thus giving them an unshakable claim on the “greener than thou” cred that bicyclists are forever misappropriating. But they too have their ways of being a pain in the ass, and yes, I know this because I too, at least in the past, have been guilty of it.

Crossing the street with complete disregard for traffic signals—or traffic—is one thing. Let’s be honest: it’s what New Yorkers do. But doing it with insolent and unnecessary slowness, almost as if you’re reveling in holding up progress for all the drivers fuming in their cars as they sit though several light changes without managing to get across a single intersection? Maybe it’s funny in a sick sort of way, but it’s really not very nice.

What about pushing the walk button so that traffic will have to stop even though by the time it does you’ve long since jaywalked across? Would people really DO that? I’m here to shamefacedly admit that there was a time when I and others I knew did just that.

Thankfully I outgrew such petulant and counterproductive tactics. I realized that creating still more stop-and-go traffic helped no one, and that frustrated and exasperated drivers are far less likely to be thoughtful and careful ones.

In fact, I’ve gone to the opposite extreme: now, if it’s just as easy to walk behind rather than in front of a car, I’ll signal to the driver to go ahead even if I have the legal right of way.

It’s not a question of having learned to love or even accept the vast numbers of cars that still, in my opinion, overpopulate our streets. But I finally got it through my thick skull that regardless of their chosen means of transportation, we’re ultimately dealing with individual human beings who deserve respect and consideration. Like nearly every aspect of life in the big city, it comes down to one of those honey-or-vinegar things.

Traffic and transportation are still major sources of stress, inefficiency, waste, and environmental depredation, yet a little at a time, slowly but surely, I think we’re making progress. Next time you’re gliding down what once would have been an unimaginably tranquil Broadway on one of Mayor Mike’s shiny blue bikes, pause to reflect on what things used to be like, and maybe even give a little thanks for how much better they are today.

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