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The Theory of Relativity

September 24, 2014

I have no interest in picking apart Samuel G. Freedman’s recent post at The New Yorker, “A Bicycle Crash Kills Another Pedestrian in Central Park,” point by point. If you want to do that on your own, please check it against Adam Sternbergh’s now-evergreen guide to writing anti-bike stories, which was originally posted in 2011. Trust me, Freedman hits all the notes.

Instead, I wanted to zero in on what seems to be an interesting psychology at play in Freedman’s piece, one that’s also happening across the city right now.

Freedman begins his piece by mentioning his own experience of being hit by a cyclist in the park:

One chilly morning in December, 2003, I was midway through my daily run in Central Park when I felt a powerful jolt from behind. The next thing I knew, I was splayed across the asphalt, certain that I had been hit by a car. But, as I gathered myself, groaning, and checked for blood and fractures, I saw the culprit sitting on the ground beside me: a bicyclist with his exercise gear and helmet still in place. I did the reasonable thing, hurling his bicycle over a low fence, cursing him profusely, and demanding his name and contact information. Then, because I had no money on me, I limped three anguished miles home.

In retrospect, I can appreciate how fortunate I was. I had fallen forward, staying within the running lane, rather than diagonally, into the path of trailing cars. I had managed to throw my arms down ahead of me so that my head did not crash onto the pavement. Because it was winter, I was wearing two layers of cold-weather gear, absorbing the worst of the impact.

My near-miss, though, left me with a heightened awareness of the dangers posed by bicyclists. Their numbers have grown dramatically in New York in the eleven years since my episode, with commuter biking more than doubling in that time.

Later in the piece he brings up his experience of being hit by a driver while riding his bike. So as to provide the full context, here’s the entire paragraph in which the account appears:

I have no animus toward bicycles in and of themselves. I have owned a bike for all of the thirty-one years I’ve lived or worked in New York. At points, I have commuted to and from my Columbia University office by bike. I’ve cycled along the Hudson with my children, and by myself for exercise when I was unable to run. And, yes, in my benighted past, I’ve known the guilty pleasure of rolling through a red light when no cars or pedestrians were in sight. I also have no illusions about the danger that autos and trucks pose—fifteen cyclists have died in traffic accidents in New York City so far this year. A few years ago, a livery cab making a sudden right turn cut me off as I was heading uptown on my bike along Amsterdam Avenue. I braced my fall with my right arm, and it took months before I could fully straighten it.

In Freedman’s first example, being hit by a person on a bike serves as the narrative framework for an essay in which he indicts all cyclists for the growing danger on New York City streets. In his second example, being hit by a person in a car serves merely to establish Freedman’s cycling bona fides.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a stark disconnect contained in a single piece of anti-bike writing. In Freedman’s own words, the recent tragedies in Central Park “lay bare two realities of what we might call bike culture in New York City.” But when fifteen cyclists die in traffic crashes in the span of nine months — not to mention upwards of 120 pedestrians, motorists and passengers so far this year — that apparently exposes nothing about what we might call car culture in New York City.

So why is that? It’s a fascinating psychological question, and one that I think we need to answer if we’re going to make our way to Vision Zero.

Let me be clear: I am in no way excusing reckless cycling just because reckless driving is more consequential. “But other people are worse!” is a terrible moral argument. Any death caused by a person’s negligence or recklessness, be it on a bike or in a car, ought to stoke our moral outrage as concerned citizens of New York. Please read that disclaimer again before you decide to comment.

  1. September 24, 2014 7:16 am

    I’m much less receptive to “moral” arguments that reject numerical comparisons; I find that is often a way of being spun to accept a status quo that ought to be unacceptable, which is certainly the case here. The next time a pedestrian is killed by an auto, will we see an article in the New Yorker? Will we see a police crackdown on dangerous driving? I want the New Yorker to publish those articles, again and again and again. I want those police crackdowns, again and again and again. If not, I guess those deaths matter less? Where’s our moral argument now?

  2. Matt H permalink
    September 24, 2014 8:04 am

    Fun fact: based on the 2003 configuration of the drive in Central Park, the author’s behavior was perfect only if the incident he describes happened in the southwest quadrant of the drive. Or if the cyclist was riding the wrong way entirely.

    Elsewhere on the lower loop, the designated pedestrian lane was separated from bikes by a low wooden fence. (The fence is still there, it’s just that runners and peds have been given the space to the outside of that fence, with the bike space further out still.)

    If on the upper loop, there were discreet signs indicating that runners should run clockwise, facing counterclockwise bike traffic.

    I’m obviously not _actually_ suggesting that anyone who was running counterclockwise deserved to be crashed into, but if the author seems to be so obsessed with who’s following rules and who isn’t, rather than who’s acting in a safe, reasonable, heads-up manner, well, I’m not convinced he dotted every i and crossed every t either. How about let’s all get along instead.


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