I’m currently reading (probably about two years after everyone else has) Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, about the collapse of Lehman Brothers and attempts to stop a financial meltdown on Wall Street.
The book contains this brief but intriguing passage describing how John Mack, CEO of Morgan Stanley, rushed to a meeting in downtown Manhattan on the evening of Friday 12th September 2008. The meeting had been arranged by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner, head of the New York Federal Exchange, and was intended to get the CEOs of the major Wall Street firms to arrange some form of private sector bailout of Lehman Brothers.
John Mack and Colm Kelleher, Morgan Stanley’s chief financial officer, were sitting in the backseat of Mack’s Audi, having hurried to the car just ten minutes earlier after Mack’s secretary had instructed them to get down to the Fed as soon as possible. “This must be Lehman,” Kelleher had said as they rushed out.
Not only was the rain pelting the roof furiously, but they were sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the West Side Highway, still miles away from their destination.
“We’re not fucking moving,” said Mack, repeatedly checking his watch.
“We’re never going to get there,” Kelleher agreed.
Mack’s driver, John, a former police officer, noticed the bicycle lane running alongside the highway — a project of the Bloomberg administration to encourage walking and cycling.
“Boss, that bike lane on the right, where does it go?” John asked, craning his neck back at them.
Mack’s face lit up. “It goes all the way down to the Battery.”
“Fuck it!” the driver said, as he found a break in the street divider and inched the car onto the bike lane, speeding down it.
Much of the book is relayed in this narrative style, with conversational detail that the author admits may or may not be strictly accurate. So I sought out some corroboration that this might actually have happened, and found this video of Mack himself actually describing the incident. Here’s what he says –
So we get a call from Tim Geithner, head of the New York Fed, Friday afternoon, sometime around five o’clock, four-thirty, and he says ‘John, can you come down the Fed, we’re going to have a meeting.’
So we get the call, ‘come downtown’. We’re at midtown, 48th Street. We get in the car with my CFO [Chief Financial Officer], we start down the drive, we get to about 40th Street, the traffic’s not moving, it’s raining in New York. There’s no way we’re going to make it downtown to get to the Federal Reserve.
My driver, who is an ex-policeman, says to me, ‘Hey boss, you see that bike lane over there? Does that go all the way down to the Battery?’
I said ‘Yeah Joe, it does.’
Next thing I know we’re in the bike lane, going all the way down. We actually got there in five minutes. It’s amazing. Now a couple of bikers actually threw things at us. But we made the meeting and got there on time.
A slight difference over the name of Mack’s driver, but the story sounds the same, related here with the additional detail that ‘bikers’ threw things at Mack’s Audi. So this really did happen, unless Mack is presenting a James Martin-style tall tale for dramatic effect (nobody likes people on bikes, so if you were to invent a story, they make an ideal choice to be driven at by your limo driver; suggesting you drove downtown on the pavement, for instance, would be far less helpful as a snappy anecdote).
There wasn’t even any need for such extraordinary haste or risk taking, because as it turns out, Paulson didn’t even turn up until a quarter to seven, some two hours after Mack says he arrived at the Fed – Paulson himself was flying in from New Jersey. Indeed, proper negotiations to save Lehman Brothers didn’t even start until the next morning, Saturday; this was just a preliminary get together.
I did a quick Google Maps search for the route from Morgan Stanley’s headquarters to the Federal Reserve that Mack and his colleagues must have taken. About 6 miles, although most directly – on foot or by bike – it is 4 miles.
And a probable point of ingress onto the protected cycle lane on the right, heading south on the Lincoln Highway –
Perhaps Mack and his colleagues could have used the bicycle lane in the way it was intended – for people on bikes. They could probably have cycled down to the Federal Reserve in about the same amount of time it would have taken them to drive down there on the cycle lanes. They might even arrived in a better frame of mind; a titbit from the book is that Paulson himself cycled around Washington DC’s parks and cycle tracks on his bicycle to relieve stress and to give himself thinking time.
On this particular day, of course, it was raining heavily, so we can perhaps cut Mack some slack for not using a bicycle to get to the Federal Exchange, although it should be pointed out that the New York subway – with stations just a few minutes walk from both Morgan Stanley’s offices and the Fed – would have got him there in about twenty minutes, with no need for charging down a bike lane in a large Audi.
Mack’s behaviour reminded me of a scene near the start of the latest Bond film, Skyfall, in which ‘M’ is being driven from the Cabinet Office back to the Special Intelligence Service (the monstrous building in Vauxhall). Informed by her assistant of a developing situation, she demands her driver ‘Get us back to base as quickly as possible!’
The quickest way, of course – just as Mack discovered – is to drive in a bike lane.
Judi Dench’s Jaguar charges down one what is (albeit currently) on of the best sections of Superhighway in London, CS8 on Millbank. Nice and wide for speeding past traffic when you’ve got important business.
The filmmakers evidently weren’t content with just using the Superhighway for emergencies. They also have a taxi rolling along in it, besides the government Jaguar, earlier in the scene.
Either the Skyfall production team are going for ‘authentic London detail’, or they need a primer in the meaning of ‘mandatory cycle lanes’, as there’s another vehicle (a silver car) driving in it seconds later, before ‘M’ gets swerved into it. (Quibble – how she’s going to use the cycle lane to undertake motor traffic when there’s already so much motor traffic using it?)
So it seems that in both the world of reality and fiction, cycle facilities are a handy way of allowing really important people to get to really important destinations in their limos in a way that’s really really fast.
Incidentally, it’s only one and a half miles from the Cabinet Office to the Secret Intelligence Service building, and while I could see Judi Dench on a nice Pashley with a wicker basket (with machine guns in it, naturally), I can’t really see her tackling Vauxhall Bridge or the roundabouts at either end of Lambeth Bridge.
So she’s just about forgiven.