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If You See Something, Say Something

February 14, 2011

The Daily News continues its coverage of the great bicycling crisis of 2011 with an article by Adam Lisberg in yesterday’s paper.  It’s titled “In the city’s bike wars, the downside of cycling isn’t counted as rigorously as the upside,” although there may have been an earlier or different title for the story, as the URL ending indicates:

getting_city_to_rein_in_rogue_bikers_is__a_vicious_cycle_for_311_callers

Maybe it was changed because it would reveal just how much better the Post is at this whole bike wars thing than the Daily News.  You can’t out-fox a fox (or Fox) and I sometimes wonder why the Daily News hasn’t tried to position itself as the anti-Post instead of competing for the same dwindling audience.

Lisberg’s article centers on 311 and the fact that right now there is no effective way for the system to log complaints against dangerous riders.  There are efforts underfoot to reform how 311 tracks this info, but you won’t learn very much about if you read the Daily News.

While Lisberg may dismiss my criticism as merely coming from a cranky bicycling advocate, he’s missing the point.  My issue is not with his bike reporting but simply with his reporting.  In fact, if there’s a way to give bicycling its own category in 311 then I’m all for it.  Unfortunately, Lisberg’s story is not the journalism you deserve if you are trying to figure out the extent of the problem, its context, and how changing 311 might work.

Lisberg’s article begins with the story of Nancy Linday, a Manhattan resident who was so fed up with “out-of-control cyclists” that she decided to do something about it.

…she took careful note of every lawbreaking cyclist she saw near her office.  A day later, she said, she dialed 311, demanded the operator take notes and dictated them for more than an hour.  It got a response: A sergeant from the Midtown North Police Precinct called her within days, gave her his direct line and told her to call him anytime with bike problems.

Linday’s experience with led her to realize that the city doesn’t have an effective way to log bike-related complaints, because 311 currently lumps bicycling complaints into a general category of “bikes, skateboards, Rollerblades and motorized scooters.”  That provides the jumping off point for Lisberg to dive into the problem in more detail.

Or at least it should.  Lisberg boils down Linday’s story to this conclusion: “In other words, in the city’s bike wars, the downside of cycling isn’t counted as rigorously as the upside.”

Well, not exactly.  I’m open to the possibility that cycling’s disadvantages may outweigh its advantages, but it is also possible that some things simply have a much bigger upside than downside, to the point that counting its downside is difficult or not worth it.  Although it makes for nice copy, it’s not a foregone conclusion that because something isn’t counted it’s therefore being ignored by those with the spreadsheets.

Then again, the city does have a way, however imperfect, of counting bicycle complaints.  For the sake of argument, assume that 100% of 311’s recorded complaints about “bikes, skateboards, Rollerblades and motorized scooters” are only about bikes.  How many calls did it log in 2009?

The city’s 311 operators recorded 426 calls last year about chronic problems with bikes, skateboards, Rollerbladers, and motorized scooters.  The upper East Side topped the list with 48; the upper West Side followed with 38.  An additional 198 callers called with hazardous biking-skating-scooting complaints, which were transferred to 911.  City records don’t break them down by location.

That’s 626 total bike-related complaints.  (The article doesn’t mention how many of them were from Nancy Linday’s hour-long 311 call.)  Even assuming that some people called 311 only to hang up out of frustration with the system’s inability to properly log their complaint, 626 hardly seems like a huge number when you consider that 311 fields 50,000 calls per day.  The fact that the upper West Side accounted for 38 of these calls should be its own statistical standard deviation.  Zabar’s probably gets twice as many complaints about the its checkout lines on Sundays.

Even if the point of the article is to show that the category is so broad as to be ineffective, are there not other 311 categories that are similarly broad and ineffective?  How does 311 tally other chronic complaints that don’t fit neatly into one category?  And where do these 626 bike complaints compare to those related to graffiti, overgrown branches, or consumer complaints?  There’s no context to the data.

Even if the city could track bike-related 311 calls more reliably, it’s hardly the panacea some may be looking for.  It’s not that hard to report reckless driving to 311, but how many people spend 10 minutes–or an hour–on the phone every time they are almost run over by a car?  As a commenter on Gothamist’s post about the story noted, “The city needs to start a new system, maybe 211, for people who feel the need to report things that almost happened.”

Serious accidents involving injury, death or even property damage already have their own data collection method: 911 and NYPD incident reports.  Of course, there are probably many accidents of all kinds that go unreported, but the city can’t be responsible for calls they don’t receive and it can’t be expected to respond to hearsay, although I do hear it’s the perfect basis for a lawsuit.

It’s entirely possible that, NYPD crackdown aside, a bicycle-friendly administration has unleashed an unprecedented wave of rogue cyclists upon a vulnerable population and that city residents are only just now realizing the deficiencies in 311’s reporting methods.  Cycling may have grown so much in the past few years that it caught the Department of Information Technology by surprise.

If that’s true, then Lisberg leaves some very important questions unanswered: How do the 626 bike-related complaints compare to previous years?  Has there been a sudden uptick that’s risen with the addition of bike lanes?  And if changing 311 is a good solution, how much will it cost to retrofit the system so that the bicycle category stands on its own?  Is it as as simple as rewriting a few lines of code and reprinting a page of the 311 handbook or will it be a huge, laborious undertaking?

My issue with Lisberg’s article is not that it’s negative or that he quotes people with whom I disagree.  My problem is that if I was a totally uninformed Daily News reader, this story would not help me make sense of the problem and its potential solutions.  Journalism’s job is to not only report the news, but to put the news in context for readers.  That’s why I think Lisberg’s article fails.

Lisberg’s excuse is that he doesn’t have “endless space like Streetsblog does.”  Two points for the clever dig, but it’s not exactly as his story had to be written exactly the way it was written in the space his editors provided.  Then again, given how many stories and editorials his paper has devoted to rogue cyclists this year alone, it seems as if the Daily News actually does have plenty of space to devote to biking.

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