Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rigorous data

Last week, fellow bloggers Brooklyn Spoke, Aaron Naparstek and I traded tweets with Daily News reporter Adam Lisberg over an article he wrote about the difficulty of "reporting rogue bikers." Aaron took Lisberg to task for making it a story about "bike wars" and not police enforcement or 311 reporting in general. Brooklyn Spoke and Howard Wolfson pointed out the skewed perspective of Lisberg and his source, Nancy Linday: 1800 pedestrians have been killed by cars in the past ten years in New York, and only seven by bicycles.

It is very much to his credit that Lisberg chose to engage with four random guys on Twitter about his reporting. Aside from a little snark and defensiveness, he was generally polite and focused on the issues. I think I speak for Aaron and Brooklyn Spoke when I say I want to be constructive and supportive. I think Lisberg is curious about transportation issues and cares about the people of this city, and wants to see fairness and justice prevail. I am confident that he will produce a lot of quality reporting about the city's transportation issues in the future.

It is in that spirit of constructive engagement that I will now tear apart Lisberg's article. In summary, he says that the quality of the data that the city provides is inconsistent and favors its pro-cycling agenda. As evidence, he presents a breakdown of the calls to 311 and the reports of a Chinatown resident named Nancy Linday, who spent a lot of time reporting unlawful behavior by cyclists.

Let's start with the data. Lisberg writes:
That's because while the agency installing bike lanes is tracking their benefits closely, the agency that runs 311 doesn't even distinguish between complaints about bicycles and roller skates.

In other words, in the city's bike wars, the downside of cycling isn't counted as rigorously as the upside.
Uh, no. It's just not necessary to distinguish between skates and bikes in this context. I've traveled at least as many miles on skates in this city as on a bike, and I used the same infrastructure. I skated in the street, and when there was a bike lane I used it. If the Prospect Park West bike lane had been there fifteen years ago, I would have been in it.

I've also been hit by a skater, and it wasn't fun. I was waiting to cross Seventh Avenue on foot one evening in Midtown, against the light, and looking uptown for cars. This jerk going against traffic body-checked me and knocked the wind out of me. If I hadn't been so stunned I would have grabbed his backpack and knocked him off his skates.

No, I wasn't seriously injured. In fact, I wasn't injured at all, just rendered uncomfortable for about thirty seconds, and a bit shaken for an hour. In fact, that was a lot more than happened to Linday, as Lisberg reports: "When she dialed 311 in October to complain that a bike almost hit her on the sidewalk at 58th St. and Fifth Ave., she said her call was transferred to 911 and back again."

The best response to that came from Gothamist commenter Tom Giebel: "The city needs to start a new system, maybe 211, for people who feel the need to report things that almost happened." When I was hit by that skater, I didn't call 311. I've been almost hit by bicycles tons of times and haven't called 311. I would say that pretty much every day I almost get hit by a car, but I don't call 311.

My overall point here is that skaters and skateboards use bike lanes and endanger pedestrians, so it makes perfect sense to lump them together. This is not a sign of lack of rigor; if anything, the fact that the DOT only measured cyclists using the Prospect Park West bike lane on one day is less rigorous. Combining complaints about cyclists and skaters only seems odd if you have a particular axe to grind against cyclists, as Linday clearly does.

This brings me to my second major criticism of Lisberg: he doesn't consider the source. He identifies Linday only as someone who "lives in Chinatown, works in midtown and says both places are full of out-of-control cyclists." Linday has a very uncommon name, and a few minutes googling revealed that she's a professional urban planner who's worked with Fred Kent and Holly Whyte on placemaking, and concluded that bicycles ruin the pedestrian environment. Note that Kent had the opposite conclusion, and that another Project for Public Spaces alumnus, Andy Wiley-Schwartz, is now working for the Department of Transportation, incorporating bicycle facilities into public plazas among other things. Linday is also a runner, and maybe she doesn't like sharing the Central Park loop road with cyclists.

There are three possibilities. The first is that Lisberg didn't bother to do that search, which means he was sloppy and got played. The second is that he did the search but didn't think it was worth reporting, which means he didn't grasp what was going on. The third is that he thought it was worth reporting but withheld that information, which means he was dishonest with his readers.

How then to interpret these paragraphs:
The next day, 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 Precinct called her within days, gave her his direct line and told her to call him anytime with bike problems.
To me all that says is that if you've got an agenda and are willing to harass a 311 operator, you will be rewarded by the police. Thanks, NYPD! And then, Lisberg reveals Linday's agenda: "That may sound like an example of 311 working - but Linday said she wants those complaints to be tabulated by the people who set bike policy in the city, not just the cops who have to stop the rogue bikers."

Let's connect that with an article written by Deputy Mayor Goldsmith, who oversees both the cops and the people who set bike policy. Interestingly, he just released a website where you can track 311 calls, including "Bike/Roller/Skate Chronic" (it's under "Public Safety"). Goldsmith writes, "The citizen with a thoughtful idea is not always the loudest. Many citizens with legitimate concerns or constructive suggestions may not enjoy either crowds or microphones. Avenues for their civic engagement ought to exist too."

So a well-informed professional with an agenda to distort the city's decision-making process spends a lot of time compiling data and harassing the city, and gets an NYPD sergeant's attention. She then calls up a Daily News reporter, who runs with her angle and fills in the David vs. Goliath script with a token quote from the heartless bureaucrats. Lisberg takes no time to consult a single cyclist, even though he considers himself a fan of Aaron Naparstek's work, or to situate Linday's concerns in the overall context of threats to pedestrian safety. Again, here's hoping he'll do better next time.

I want to end by pointing out that many citizens with legitimate concerns may not enjoy spending a day tabulating lawbreaking, or even an hour haranguing a hapless 311 operator. I personally have gotten discouraged reporting cars parked on the sidewalk and given up, but I would note that the 311 map includes a lot more examples of "Illegal Parking" (which lumps sidewalk parking in with blocked hydrants and a lot of other issues) than of "Bike/Roller/Skate Chronic." There are many reasons why legitimate complaints do not go reported, and counting complaints doesn't give you a real sense of how much people care about the issue. Complaint counts should be taken with a huge grain of salt, and definitely not used as the main basis for policy decisions. I don't have a solution, but Linday's goal is a recipe for disaster.


nathan_h said...

Nice work.

It's looking more and more like professional jealousy is the primary force behind these months of attacks, which is just sickening. Regular New Yorkers, many of whom are literally poor, are getting $270 tickets for harmless traffic violations entirely because the bitter old guard of urban planning got a bee in its bonnet. What a bunch of heartless creeps.

And who wants to pay to read the stenographers of this nasty, effete class? A shrinking pool of people, it would seem.

Alon Levy said...

7 sounds outrageously high to me - I'd have guessed 0 or 1, in light of the fact that accident rates for cars tends to be 1-2 orders of magnitude higher than for everything else. Do you have a link for it?