2006-10-01 The Case for Cycling - Metro NY Sports

New York Metro - Sports
By Alex Padalka
October, 2006

This summer, the New York Police Department shook up the bike community by submitting a proposal to require a permit for cyclists riding in groups a small as two. The request was withdrawn, but the relationship between the city and cyclists continues to be strained.

This summer, a temporary victory for organized cycling united New York bicycle clubs and appeased First Amendment defenders. It also brought criticism of the monthly Critical Mass rides and its participants to the forefront.

In July, the New York City Police Department submitted and consequently withdrew a proposal to require permits for several types of public events, including one that would have required a parade permit for as few as two cyclists riding together on city streets without obeying traffic regulations such as red lights. Many cycling activists remain wary of how the department will act next in what has now been a two-year campaign against organized riding.

While the parade permits are currently the hot button issue among the active community and group ride organizers, the lone cyclists, including commuters and fitness riders, have experienced bouts of ticketing by police in the park for breaking traffic laws, for offenses such as high speeds or running red lights before the park is open to cars prior to 7 a.m. “Central Park is the only place for fitness cyclists to ride,” says Lee Silverman, owner of Jackrabbit Sports in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

“Ticketing between 6:30 and 7 a.m., when there are no cars in the park, limits people. They are preventing cyclists from using the one place they have for the little time they have it.”

Silverman believes that ticketing people when there are no cars around will not create behavior that will make the park safer for its users. He believes that while there may be a need for a speed limit, it should be enforced equally for cars and bikes. According to Carli Smith, spokesperson for the Parks department, the speed limit is the same—25 mph on the park drive. “We cannot ticket for speeding alone, as there is no way to establish the exact speed of a bike,” says Smith. “But if a cyclist is riding in an area with a lot of pedestrians and is moving at a speed that is clearly too fast, dangerous for the amount of people around, [Parks Enforcement Patrol] would issue a summons,” says Smith. Some cyclists experienced this over the summer months in Central Park, assumedly while riding above 15 mph, sparking rumors of a separate speed limit for bikes.

“Fifteen miles per hour is slow for fitness cyclists,” says Silverman. “ The average speed during a race is probably about 17 mph, so 15 mph wouldn’t allow anyone to effectively train for the New York City triathlon.” While there are many voices for Critical Mass riders and commuters, Silverman wonders who will be the advocate for the fitness cyclists and their needs?

“The motive [for parade permits] in my opinion, started with Critical Mass, but the way [the NYPD] have been riding it is a total crackdown on dissent in any form,” said Matthew Roth, director of the New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign with Transportation Alternatives, a 5,500-member New York non-profit group advocating better bicycling, walking and public transit infrastructure and safety. “Even if they come back with a more restrictive rule [against bike riders], it’s going to be heavily biased against any bike ride of 20 or more, so any club organizing a ride, or advocacy group organizing a ride, or friends organizing a ride will potentially be subject to enforcement.”

Transportation Alternatives has been rallying for years to get cars out of the parks entirely, allowing cyclists, runners and any other park users to escape the dangerous environment posed by speeding cars, and to bring the parks back to their purpose of being quiet recreational refuges for citizens.

“In a dream world cars would be gone from the parks,” says Silverman. “There are lots of places for transportation and few places for recreation [in the city].” Silverman feels, as do many other riders in the active community, that cyclists are holding more than their share of the blame for accidents in the parks, considering how few pedestrians follow traffic laws and cross at crosswalks. “Get the cars out, re-stripe the road [to accommodate everyone safely] enforce speeds and take the pressure off cyclists,” says Silverman.

The frustration with police is also found in recreational and fitness clubs with membership that doesn’t necessarily attend Critical Mass, such as the New York Cycle club, or Five Borough Bicycle Club. “Our organization is anything but in-your-face,” said Ed DeFreitas, president of the 1,400-member FBBC, which averages four weekend rides. “These are basically middle-class professionals. Our rides are the type where, en masse, we help out the MS Society and other charitable organizations, and we go down there and help them with their events. And now we’re being told that if we do this, we’re going to have to get a couple of parade permits? That would mean we would have to apply for a parade permit for every single one of our day trips.”

Neither the NYCC nor the FBBC attend Critical Mass rides as clubs, but acknowledged that individual members participate.

Critical Mass and the NYPD: A History of Confrontations

Critical Mass was born in 1992 in San Francisco as a “celebration of bicycles and nonpolluting means of transportation,” and has now spread to over 400 cities, including New York, where they have been held on the last Friday of every month since 1993. According to TIME’S UP!, a 20-plus-year-old New York environmental advocacy group that has increasingly focused on bicycle riding advocacy, the rides have no hierarchy and no leadership, although the group’s activism has become closely associated with the ride.

Prior to the August 2004 Republican National Convention held in New York City, the city’s Critical Mass rides were relatively calm affairs, with the police assisting rides by letting them pass on red lights and even blocking car traffic to allow the procession’s movement. The “RNC Ride,” estimated at 5,000 to 6,000 riders, was the largest New York ride ever. Suddenly, the police were cordoning people off with scooters and plastic netting. Altogether, the police arrested almost 400 riders during the week and a half surrounding the RNC. Police Commissioner Paul J. Browne said the reason for the change in police tactics was due to the group becoming “increasingly aggressive.”

The riders responded. The following October, five plainpngs sought an injunction in U.S. Southern District Court of New York against the NYPD to stop the department from confiscating bicycles left on the street. Cyclists say the police sawed off their bike locks and took away the bikes, the police insisted the bikes were abandoned and asked the judge to enjoin anyone from participating in Critical Mass without obtaining a permit. In December 2004, Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that Critical Mass cyclists were not obligated to seek parade permits. However, the City’s injunctions did not stop.

Roth was one of four people named in the injunction filed against Times’ Up! in March 2005 following the arrest of 37 riders. It aimed to restrict the group from promoting rides the city deemed illegal. This year, Bill DiPaola, the executive director of Time’s Up!, along with Roth, was a defendant in February’s injunction by the City to stop Critical Mass rides unless a permit was issued. This time the injunction was denied by New York State Supreme Court Judge Michael D. Stallman.

Throughout the two-year ordeal, Critical Mass riders and Time’s Up! have presented evidence of such police actions as cutting off and “dooring” cyclists preceding the arrests. The NYPD did not return a request for comment for this article.

Parade Permit Requirements

The NYPD’s July proposal would have required parade permits for groups of more than 35 pedestrians on the sidewalk, 20 or more cyclists on roadways, and two or more cyclists ignoring traffic laws.

In August, the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has been representing Critical Mass arrestees since the RNC busts, raised concern that the police officials were overstepping their boundaries, claiming parade permit laws were already being applied at Critical Mass rides and should be reduced, not expanded. Norman Siegel, the prominent civil rights lawyer who has taken on several cycling arrest cases, suggested that the issue of parade permits was up to the City Council. Several council members stepped forward, including Council Speaker Christine Quinn, denouncing the proposal at a rally at the St. Mark’s Church in the East Village, a popular gathering area and occasional safe haven for Critical Mass riders.

According to Time’s Up!, hundreds of people signed up to testify at the scheduled Police Public Hearing. The morning after the St. Mark’s rally, the police withdrew the proposal, claiming it would revise and narrow the scope of the rules.

“Since then, many cycling clubs have been coming out and saying the police should not make these rules,” says DiPaola. The clubs are sending representatives to a monthly non-hierarchical umbrella group meeting called the New York Bicycle Coalition, which includes TA, NYCC, FBBC, New York Bike Messengers Association and Staten Island Bicycling Association. They are working toward a common goal: “It’s all about safety,” says DiPaola.

Novice riders, or those that are considering switching from recreational weekend-warrior status to commuter or fitness rider, are, rightly, scared of New York City traffic, leaving the parks as their only cycling sanctuary.

According to a TA study of New York City bicycle fatalities, over 200 cyclists were killed between 1995 and 2005. At least 10 cyclists were killed so far in 2006. In order for novices to learn how to ride in traffic, according to DeFreitas and DiPaola, they need the buffer zone provided by a group. Requiring permits for that would discourage people from even trying.

Many within the community believe that the City’s lack of action to increase bike routes and make the streets safer is the root cause of the increase in cycling fatalities and anti-bike attitude among drivers (and even police) in the city. Contrast New York to Chicago, a city that has set goals to increase bicycle use, to reduce the number of bicycle injuries by 50 percent from current levels and put every Chicago resident within a half-mile of a bike path. In New York, the city is sitting on a 10-year-old ‘Bicycle Master Plan’ that is only 15 percent complete while groups continue to fight for enforcement of laws against vehicles double parking in bike lanes, for a complete bike lane network, as well as the repair of unsafe street surfaces.

At press time, activists anticipate another NYPD revision to the current parade rules, and cycling groups continue implore the City to make the streets safer for cyclists, not to alienate them.