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It’s Chaos Out There: A Cyclist’s Diary

Rico Cleffi Nov 15

It’s all so fragile, this having a body and interacting with bikes and cars on the streets. Always so close to that point where you stop being a person and you become a corpse.

Out there, it’s chaos. Not chaos in a good way, not the self-managed chaos where strictures are cast aside and spaces for new forms of existence open up. Not Dionysian chaos. No, this is more of the run-into-the-person-in-front-of-you-at-the-red-light chaos. Trump America chaos. I got mine, to-hell with-everybody-else chaos. Fuck-you-pay-me chaos.

Tearing down First Avenue on my bicycle, I’m always tempted to look up at the hospital room where my daughter was born, but a quick up-glance could be fatal. People jumping into the bike lane — food cart workers, women in labor, various injured people dropped off by taxis — they might as well be dropped from the sky. “Outta the fucking bike lane!” somebody shouts at a man hobbling towards the ambulatory entrance.

I went to Critical Mass events regularly in the early aughts. A swarm of cyclists would halt traffic. It was a way of protesting for alternative transit, for opening the city up outside of car culture. I stopped going sometime after the Republican National Convention came to town in 2004. The cops started sweating the event hard, cracking down and cracking heads. The mass arrests and brutality had the intended effect of deterring people. It got to the point where there would be more cops than bikers.

Still, when it was good, there was no feeling more liberating than being in the throes of cyclists, shutting down traffic on a street, then an avenue, maybe a bridge. It was really something to ride like that and see the city free of cars, to glimpse the possibilities.

‘Which driver is not tempted, merely by the power of his engine, to wipe out the vermin of the street, pedestrians, children and cyclists’ — Theodor Adorno

The fleeting sense of power can be intoxicating. There’s this element of anarchic joy, it led to shouts of “Join us” and “We are taking over.” I used to marvel at the Critical Massers who would block off intersections, bikes held above their heads. What would happen if the drivers decided to call their bluff? I used to see this one guy I knew, right there at the intersection, matching his power against the cars. He was killed a few years later, at a protest in another country. He was braver than me. He put his body on the line and was killed for taking a risk. I’ll always think of him there at the intersection, bike held over his head, sure that he would prevail.

“[W]hich driver is not tempted, merely by the power of his engine, to wipe out the vermin of the street, pedestrians, children and cyclists,” Theodor Adorno put it in Minimia Moralia. “The movements machines demand from their users already have the violent, hard-hitting, unresisting jerkiness of Fascist maltreatment.”

Adorno’s words have flashed through my mind countless times while crossing Flushing Avenue on Navy Street, en route to the semi-protected bike path leading to the Manhattan Bridge. Often, possibly given to the narrowness of this stretch, drivers speed up, forcing you to cut left against approaching traffic. It’s impossible to know the drivers’ intent, though it certainly feels as if they are trying to run you down. It occured to me again earlier this month, when a driver literally ran me off First Avenue. “Get in the fucking bike lane!” he shouted. The fact that the bike lane was closed for construction apparently escaped his notice.

Cars scare the shit out of me. There’ve been too many times when things got close. I’ve been hit while walking on a sidewalk, doored while biking, clipped at intersections. It adds up inside you, festers in some cumulative rot in there somewhere. When I see cars at rest, lined up in a parking lot, the sun glaring back out of their windows, even then I get this strong feeling they could roar to life any second and consummate a bloodbath.   

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My toddler daughter and I sing “The wheels on the bus go round and round” together endlessly. Sometimes I think of the wheels on the bus steamrolling me into the pavement. I think of how a charter bus killed an 80-year-old riding a bicycle on 29th Street in June. I picture the vehicle, maybe loaded with a church group departing for a day at the slots in Atlantic City. I recall how a cyclist, Alejandro Moran-Marin, was dragged across Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn by an out-of-control SUV a couple years back. Photos showed pieces of his bike jutting out of one of the SUV’s hubcaps. We can only imagine what shape Moran-Marin’s body was in. A shoe and a bike tire were found over a block away.

In multiple states, Republican legislators have introduced bills that would waive penalties for drivers who injure or kill protesters. When I saw the footage of Heather Haier and others getting run down by the Nazi in Charlottesville and again when eight people were murdered by a truck on the Hudson River bike path on Halloween. I got that familiar shudder. Much as I was horrified, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. Of course, it’s obvious, why wouldn’t they use cars?

Centers for Disease Control estimates over 1.25 million people are felled by cars each year. That’s 3,400 per day. It is one the leading causes of death in the United States, right up there with suicide and opioids. Despite all the “law and order” rhetoric from Trump and his supporters about the “carnage” of cities, you are far more likely to get killed in a car crash than shot or stabbed. According to the most recent stats from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 37,461 people were killed by automobiles in 2016. The FBI puts the number of murders that year at 15,696.

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Road rage fits perfectly with the dissolution, erosion of community and displaced anger pervading America today. I watch the MAGA-hatted throngs at a Trump rally screaming “Build Dat Wall” and I see an aggregate of people smashing their telephones on the table, a soulless corporation, maybe a bank or a cable provider, on the other line. “I said one! One! Operator, please! Now!”

Who doesn’t feel utterly powerless? Aside from those with the actual power? No matter how much the technocrats hail self-driving cars as a way of avoiding automobile deaths, most people won’t want to give up one of the few areas of their lives where there is the illusion of control, of individual freedom. Besides, the automation autocrats offer no solution to the fact of traffic. For most of us, being stuck in traffic is as much a part of our lives as watching TV. It’s part of the dead time that composes our deadening days.

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Road rage fits perfectly with the dissolution, erosion of community and displaced anger pervading America today.

An item at the Gothamist website recently detailed how a man rode the subway decked out in a prominent swastika necklace, set against a black Nike shirt. Looking at the photos, I’m struck by the proximity of two of the most recognizable logos in history. One is terrifying, the other mundane in its ubiquity. A jogger wearing a Nike singlet jumped right in front of me about an hour after I saw that picture. I swerved, missing him by a few inches. The whole rest of the way home I kept thinking about that goddamn swoosh and the swastika, the endless ads jumping off the bus kiosks, the branded blue Citi Bikes — garish logos on wheels careening in every direction.

“Today there are more than 450,000 daily bike trips in the city, up from 170,000 in 2005, an increase that has outpaced population and employment growth,” the New York Times reported in June. A portion of the uptick is due to Citi Bike and while cycle advocates have generally welcomed more bikes on the road — get more people out there, the argument goes, and drivers will get used to cyclists — now that more people are riding bikes than ever, traffic can get heavy in bike lanes. The ascent up bridges can be a total mob scene. It’s kind of like Critical Mass every day, but without the sense of orgiastic joy. Everybody’s angling for position.

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Citi Bike may be a gateway drug to get people into urban cycling but it is also a major greenwashing campaign.

“Why do you think Citi is paying for the bikes?” Mike Bloomberg asked a friend who wanted a portion of the “hideous” Citi Bike station removed from his neighborhood. The former mayor knows Citi Bike is an advertising ploy, a fact lost on the program’s liberal boosters.

The bank underwrites many of the most harmful fossil fuel projects going — the Dakota Access pipeline and Keystone XL to name a few. Then there was Citi’s role in the housing crisis — the $7 billion they paid in settlements for knowingly unloading shittons of toxic mortgages and helping cause the financial crisis. Don’t even get me started on the $476 billion government bailout Citi received. Or the LIBOR scandal.

I think of how awful Citibank is when a Citi biker makes a show of passing between me in the middle of a busy intersection, just as I’m moving around a truck. He puts all he’s got into it, standing and pumping the pedals. If I didn’t notice him last minute and jerk away, we would’ve struck each other. Once we’re through the intersection, the falls into a dingbat lope. I’m forced to pass him. The great Bike Snob blogger Ebben Weiss calls this shoaling. It’s a shitty, entitled thing to do. Kind of like, as Weiss puts it, cutting in front of someone at an ATM or in line for a bathroom.

There’s a tendency in my neighborhood for some people (largely white newcomers) to complain that we aren’t getting Citi Bikes. Another neighborhood tendency is opposed to all bike lanes, which they view as a gentrifier’s tool. Once you get beyond the image of the stereotypical white cyclist, you can see that a good number of the cyclists on the road aren’t white. What do you think all those delivery guys are riding?

There is something to be said about the bike as a great tool for social avoidance. The appeal of swooping into a neighborhood while avoiding all the inhabitants isn’t lost on gentrifiers and Citi Bike is a great post-community self-indulgence vehicle.

“Indeed, some Citi Bike users say they are more likely to go out at night and perhaps venture a bit farther now that everything is a carefree bike ride away,” the Times noted in 2013. “That may explain why docking stations in bar-heavy areas like the Lower East Side and the meatpacking district become increasingly empty as night ticks toward morning.”

In China, where people regularly vandalize bike-share docking stations, it is “common to hear people describe bike-sharing as a ‘monster-revealing mirror’ that has exposed the true nature of the Chinese people,” the Times documented in August. The same might be said for Citi Bike.

Multiple times, Citi Bike riders have rammed into my rear wheel at a stoplight. “Frack that frack bike,” my friend Ken used to yell at the riders. “Frack that frackin’ frack bike,” he’d blurt. I yelled nothing. Interactions like these occur so often, you run out of things to shout and air to push the words out of your gullet and into the vast indifference. That’s why I don’t rock a bell on my bike. If you want to ding-ding-a-ling at the truck about to mash your ass into the pavement, that’s fine. I prefer to save my powerless gestures for other useless avenues, like say, voting.

The stress of dealing with drivers, other cyclists and pedestrians probably strips away all other health benefits of biking.

Behind the building I live in, someone has taken to ditching Citi Bikes. First, there were three of them but the pile keeps growing larger. I spoke with a few guys on the block about it. “Could be a setup,” the first one said. Everybody said the same thing. They all assume the things have RFID chips or some type of GPS tracking. “Don’t touch ’em,” a young guy who smokes his nighttime blunt in the alley between my building and the next tells me. “It’s a trap.” Life too often feels like a trap, a setup.

It’s hard to be optimistic about this stuff. The city pushes more Citi Bikes and bike lanes and at the same time continues to devalue cyclist life. A cyclist struck and killed recently in Chelsea had the distinction of being the first Citi Bike fatality. How there aren’t more Citi Bike fatalities is beyond me.

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DNAinfo reported on the NYPD’s “ticketing blitz” strategy against cyclists, in which bike riders are targeted for traffic violations after cyclists are killed by cars. No such strategy is leveled against motorists, while the fine for running a light on a bike is around $270, the same as it is for drivers.

I don’t know many cyclists who would even bother to point out a driver who tried to run them off the road to a cop. I tried this a few times and quickly learned it is useless. Cops don’t tend to take cyclists seriously. Car culture, like the work ethic, is so ingrained in the American psyche that cyclists can expect cops and courts to presume them guilty, a priori.  

“The going rate for killing someone with a car while driving without a license in NYC is $500,” Brad Aaron put it at Streetsblog in 2014, describing the ease with which drivers have consistently escaped serious penalties for taking cyclists’ lives.

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I recently spent a few days on Fire Island, in a town where most cars are banned. Tourists on bikes blow past pedestrians. On summer weekends, bikes are banned from the street. I was walking around the Sunday before Labor Day, when a young boy, maybe seven, passed on a bike. A cop appeared. “You walk that bike, you hear?” he said. The boy started to walk his bike but the cop turned back. “Wait a minute, didn’t I warn you before?” Producing a sheaf of tickets, he proceeded to write the boy up.

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There’s been much debate among cyclists as to whether the air pollution inhaled while cycle commuting negates the other health benefits. A Columbia University researcher studying the matter told the Times, “Our preliminary data shows that many bicyclists are getting a bit over half of their daily air pollution dose in only 6 to 8 percent of their day during their daily commutes.”

When did we resign ourselves to a daily acceptable allotment of air pollution? And what’s the acceptable daily allotment of stress? For me, the stress of dealing with drivers, other cyclists and pedestrians probably strips away all other health benefits.

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A nasty virus has been going around all week. Everybody I know has a head cold, soreness, a cough, you name it. Booked for back-to-back freelance gigs, I was too beat to cycle into the city. For the first time in years in non-freezing weather, I took the subway to work. I looked forward to getting valuable reading done on the train.

It proved difficult to do while holding a pole, contorted, strangers’ elbows and armpits in my face.

The commute used to take 45 minutes, now it can take an hour and a half, sometimes over two hours. Rider powerlessness is palpable; everyone is cursing, under their breath or out loud: fuck this, fuck this, fuck this. When the opportunity presents itself, I chat with fellow riders. Why are we paying for this? You wouldn’t pay for rotted food at the supermarket. If your roof caved in, you’d withhold rent, right? No one disagrees, it’s just no one knows where to start.

Our train gets stuck on the Manhattan Bridge. I watch cyclists float by out the window and I’m envious. A jogger passes the train and then somebody just strolling by. Someone with no legs on a pushcart could beat this train. I’m on track to lose at least half an hour’s pay. Fuck this, fuck this, fuck this.  

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Photo credit: Several seconds/Flickr.